Thursday, 5 February 2009

The BBC, Golliwogs and communities of meaning

I'm guessing logic isn't Jay Hunt's first language. To see what I mean, check out this radio interview in which Hunt (BBC One Controller) tries to justify the sacking of a television presenter, Carol Thatcher (who is, coincidentally, the daughter of a former Prime Minister of Great Britain...guess which one?), on the grounds that Thatcher said something that a bunch of other people didn't like; she said it in a public place; ergo her employer is perfectly justified to sack her. Hmm.

Now let's take a reality check: Thatcher is not accused of having denied the Holocaust, or of vile, nasty racial abuse of another person in the room. If she had done either one of these things I would be quite content to see her sentenced to several years in prison. (I am not someone who thinks David Irving got a bad deal.)

However, Thatcher isn't even accused of using what most people in this country - especially the majority of people her age (if that isn't an unkind thing to say about a woman of her years..?) would regard as foul and abusive language. In fact, she is accused alleged to have used the (to me) entirely inoffensive, cute and cuddly, reminder-of-my-childhood word 'golliwog.'

Apparently, if you listen to the egregiously self-righteous interview, the fact that this happened in a BBC Green Room is significant and makes things worse (according to Hunt, BBC Green Rooms are places invested with numinous, quasi-religious signification as 'Public Places').

Here's the thing

Two things bother me about this. One is peripheral and not really germane: I like the word 'golliwog', it reminds me of Marmelade jars, my high-chair and being two-years-old. It just doesn't convey a negative connotation to me, my dog or anyone else we know. The second thing is related to this first thing, but I think it has a sociological significance wider and deeper than me and my dog.

Communties of Meaning

I guess my fear is simply this: no-one told me I could be sacked from my job - okay, if I had a job - for using this, or any other now-verboten word. What else could I be sacked or imprisoned for saying? Is there a list on-line? Can I see it? Maybe someone should go out and buy www.saythisandyou'

It's not that I condone the usage of Really Bad Words: I have been called a 'fcuking yid' in my time and I haven't enjoyed it. This may be news to some people, but it's not exactly nice to be the victim of anti-Semitism, even when - like me - you're not jewish. What I find troubling, and socially divisive, is the existence of diverging communities-of-speech. What I mean by this is that one group of people will grow up together, socialise together, and use the same words with the same expectation of being understood and accepted. Another group of people will have different shared understandings, and thus different ideas about what's acceptable and unacceptable. This is particularly true across generations (young and old), between social groups (rich and poor), and anywhere else you'd expect to find a qualitatively different argot.

The problem is when one of these groups has the power to sack, sanction, prosecute, fine or imprison (or maybe even burn-at-the-stake) members of the other groups, simply because their verbal frame-of-reference is different or their radar-of-offense is differently calibrated. This is especially worrying when there's very poor communication of what is, and is not, deemed appropriate by those in power at any given time. It's effectively the 21st Century PC equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition, mutatis mutandis. Neither were good ideas, but I guess we should be thankful that zealots of political correctedness can't use mediaeval punishments against those who do not share their finely-calibrated, poorly-publicised but extremely-powerful community of meaning.

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