Following on from the Carol Thatcher thing (see my post below “Double Standards”) I kept asking the question why Thatcher’s comment was seized on whilst many others in the British media go about their stock in trade racism relatively untroubled.
I have an answer as I had when I posed the question.
Simon Heffer in the Telegraph or Jeremy Clarkson/Richard Littlejohn in the Sun can write a whole page of racist invective and the nation shrugs its shoulders. However Carol Thatcher and before her Ron Atkinson say one single word and it seems that the whole world is outraged.
Now before anybody thinks I’m defending people for being racist I am most certainly not. I would never use or condone the use of either of these expressions and any racism is to be condemned.
What is it though about the magic power of one word that can have a person sacked and vilified?
As Frank Zappa said a word is simply an arbitrary label -that’s the foundation of linguistics. But many people think otherwise. They believe in word magic: that uttering a spell, incantation, curse, or prayer can change the world.
Swearing is another kind of word magic. People believe, contrary to logic, that certain words can corrupt the moral order – that piss and shit! and fucking are dangerous in a way that pee and sugar! and feckin’ are not. This quirk in our psychology lies in the ability of taboo words to activate primitive emotional circuits in the brain.
Have a look at this.
Linguistic taboos aren’t always a bad thing. The “N” word is firmly beyond the pale. Fuck-peppered speech gets tedious, and malicious epithets can express condemnable attitudes. But in a free society, these annoyances are naturally regulated in the marketplace of people’s reactions—as Atkinson and Thatcher learned the hard way.
Any legal ban on words and articles pertaining to them leads to absurdities. If a golliwog is to be banned from sale why not playing cards? Is the ace of spades not the epitome of blackness to the racist? How do we deal with “monkey” and “ape”? do we have to find new words for them only for racists to find some other word to express their venom?
Taboos don’t disappear, they only change.
This is a clip of Dustin Hoffman playing Lenny Bruce.
Whilst that took place in the USA, social attitudes and laws were similar on this side of the Atlantic. Thank goodness, due to the breaking of taboos, that sort of thing couldn’t happen now.
(Thanks to Max Blunt )
Filed under: Attitudes, Language, Political Correctness | Tagged: carol thatcher, lenny bruce, life of brian, ron atkinson | 4 Comments »