June 11, 2015

The ‘N-Word’: the New Obscenity

When I started my first proper job on a Bristol newspaper in 1960, Lady Chatterley’s Lover had just been published, and liberals everywhere were delighted when a charge of obscenity brought against the publishers, Penguin, was thrown out.  It was a defining moment. There had  been much mirth when prosecuting counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones QC  recounted the number  times the F-word was used in the book. The total was 30.

Charles Moore of the Daily Telegraph (no liberal he) thinks that in some ways it was no bad  thing that the prosecution failed. As he says, there has always been an unpleasant streak in the British character which likes punishing people, and until the 1960s this trait was dominant among the judiciary. However, he points out that the post-60s society brought about by the Chatterley decision is far from being liberal in the good sense—open-minded, generous, freedom-loving:

Today, no avant-garde production is complete without a scene of sexual violence or (to use a word that is not treated with enlightened tolerance) perversion. Indeed, ‘avant-garde’  is an absurd term for what has become a rigid convention. The brave, innovative play today would be one about a vicarage tea-party in which everyone said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ throughout…

…The tale of Jimmy Savile is the classic example of how the Sixties concept of ‘fun’ acted as a cover for something much darker. Mrs Whitehouse’s warnings about the exploitation of women in  the brave new liberated world were seen as fuddy-duddy at the time. They now seem almost fashionably feminist as we learn more about how powerful men were able to exploit the breaking down of boundaries.

A question occurs to me.  Why is it that—having jettisoned all their old  taboos—people  feel free to eff and blind, and amuse themselves with all  manner of pornography, yet have burdened themselves with  linguistic restrictions which would have astonished my parents’ generation. I think this trend began, like the new liberal cultural regime, in the 1960s. The first time it impinged on me was when the BBC broadcaster Jack de Manio, in a programme from Nigeria, announced  in all innocence: “Britain—and the land of the Nigger”. Immediately after coming off air, he remarked innocently: “I wonder if I should have pronounced that “Niger”.  The BBC sent him on leave for several months. Most people then would have thought this something of an over-reaction. After all, it only means “black”. Today such an offence would have meant immediate dismissal—even for a broadcaster as distinguished as de Manio.

Today virtually nobody would pronounce that word in public. If referring to it, one lowers one’s voice by half an octave and several decibels and mutters: “the N-word”.  So sensitive has this  become that someone  in the US who used the word  “niggardly” was suspended because it sounds like the offending N-word. Yet not so many decades ago, in my favourite film Kind Hearts and Coronets,  Joan Greenwood declaims in her distinctive and delightful froggy tones: “Eeeny meeny miny mo, catch a nigger by the toe…Dear me, there do seem to be lot of little niggers disappearing, don’t there?”

I suppose Shakespeare’s line “Be not niggard of thy speech”, will have to be censored out. The trend will  not end there.  Already the word “Paki” is becoming “the P-word” . Though why it should be worse than “Paddy” or “Taffy” or “Jock” or even  “Brit” which for some reason is universally acceptable, I will never understand.

Don’t laugh, but before long I may be charged with  “hate speech” just for writing the above. I’m quite serious.



One comment

  1. General Patton, then a High Church Episcopalian, joked about a “nigger prisoner” in a letter to his wife in 1943. And General Eisenhower referred to black orderlies (he, General Clark and Patton all had them) as “darkies”.

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