Friday, January 04, 2008

(Non) Use of the English language

As I was reading the obituary of George MacDonald Fraser in yesterday's Guardian, it struck me as a curiously bloodless affair, but I couldn't quite put my finger on what was wrong with it. Yes, it started off by saying Flashman was an 'international comic classic', but nonetheless it seemed surprisingly reticent, overly restrained in a measured, even mannered sort of way.

Near the end, realisation dawned. It read:
He became something of a rightwing figure, hating political correctness (the Flashman books are full of the word "nigger".)

And it struck me: MacDonald Fraser's reputation is in decline because he fails the politically correct test. The Guardian couldn't bring itself to give a wholehearted appraisal because he uses the 'n' word and writes about things and thoughts which today we find unacceptable.

But of course he used the word nigger! He was writing about Harry Flashman, a Victorian boor who was racist to the marrow because he had no inkling that this was anything other than reasonable. To read of such things does not turn the reader into a racist, any more than reading the words of a Christmas carol turns you into a Christian. It's simply nonsense, and this prissiness about "the use of the word nigger" is utterly puerile.

The other day I mentioned Peter Tatchell's objection to Radio One overturning the ban on Fairytale of New York, which it originally banned because of the use of the word faggot. These two instances represent the same complete failure of intelligence. Because you don't like the connotations of a word, you cannot simply ban the word in the expectation that the nastiness behind it will somehow vanish. Refusing to countenance the word nigger or faggot in any context is an ostrich-like approach to life which belittles the complex arguments behind them. It is a school-playground "not listening na-na-na-na-na" response.

If I read the word nigger in Flashman, I am thankful that, on balance, I live in more enlightened times. I deprecate the feelings behind its use while understanding the context in which it is used. This deepens my understanding of the issues – not much, let's not get carried away and ascribe non-existent benefits to it, but a little.

Now, if I hear the word nigger in a different context, say to a young black man surrounded by a group of white men who are circling him aggressively, I will have a different response. Obvious, you say. Probably, that's too extreme a case. Okay, let's say my colleague at work uses the word to describe an applicant for a job. Will I accept that? No. Similarly the word faggot.

It's all about context. It's all about intent. Trying to suggest a word should never be used, in any circumstance, devalues and belittles the argument. Alas, I suspect at times the right-on Guardian allows its sentiment to colour its judgement.

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