Wednesday, December 15, 2004

2004.128 Sent to Coventry for saying 'nigger' 

Football commentator Ron Atkinson, universally known as ‘Big Ron’, was manager of Coventry City football club in 1995-96, a period when they won only 14 matches out of 64. I remembered this when on 13 December 2004 I watched a fascinating programme on BBC One television about how Big Ron has been sent to Coventry for uttering the forbidden word ‘nigger’ when he thought the microphone was switched off. I present the following nuanced account (lovely word that).

When this happened last April I had a letter published in The Times.
Language indeed is powerful,
that there’s no denying:
if we doubted, the proof is in the wicked new word racist.
O what a wicked word that is
to be thrust by impudent persons
into our proud and decorous English language!

[For the whole poem see POEMOTIONS.]

The rest of this Blog derives from the entry ‘Nigger’ in the text of my unpublished DICTIONARY OF POLITICAL CORRECTNESS.
The word is derived from the Latin ‘niger’, black. It is a long time since Stephen Foster could cheerfully write‑
‘Dere’s no more hard work for poor old Ned,
He’s gone whar de good niggers go.’

It is however within living memory that children were taught to sing to a very catchy tune‑
‘Ten little nigger boys sat down to dine
A crocodile ate one, and then there were nine.’

[And so on, until there were none.]

Nowadays the word is perceived to typify all the wrongs done to Africans (often by their own people) in the days of slavery and, later, of segregation, as expressed in the old saying ‘the only good nigger is a dead nigger’. So, as Ron Atkinson so painfully found, it is necessary to avoid using it, and any compound expression such as the following (all formerly in common use): ‘nigger in the woodpile’, ‘nigger brown’, ‘nigger minstrel’. Even terms reminiscent of those must be eschewed. For example BBC television for years ran a highly popular production called ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’. Recently that title too has been perceived as tainted by racism, and is no longer used. The popular Agatha Christie novel Ten Little Niggers had to be retitled Ten Little Indians until that too became incorrect. To be safe from reproach it would now have to be called Ten Little Native Americans, though even that would risk being challenged by the politically correct as sizeist.

In his published Journal 1928-1937, edited by David Pryce-Jones, Cyril Connolly has this entry for 1928: ‘The English girls of the lower classes like Indians, Italians, or niggers; those of the lower middle seem to despise them, but obviously like them in practice. Good manners and passion of the foreigner are everywhere well spoken of - on the other hand nobody likes the Jews’. A poster was once put up at the University of Michigan reading ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste ‑ especially on a nigger’. What sort of mind produced that?

It is perfectly all right for blacks to use the forbidden word among themselves. Many rap artists do this. NWA stands for Niggers With Attitude, a group which sings about the desirability of violence against white people.

Monday, December 06, 2004

2004.127 Bad manners on the internet 

This is about what is called Netiquette, or manners on the Internet. There are different views about this. One guide I found advised the following-

To keep messages short, use some common abbreviations:
(BTW) means ‘by the way’.
A (G) enclosed in brackets indicates grinning.
A good one to keep handy in case you’re worried about offending someone is (IMHO) - In My Humble Opinion.
One of our favorites is (ROTFL), which stands for Rolling on the Floor Laughing.

The same site (the spelling gives away its origin) said: To add humor and personality to your messages, use smileys, also known as emoticons, expressions you create from the characters on your keyboard.

Well I don’t think I’ll be doing any of that. My concerns are less facile (and I’m never worried about offending someone). For example . . .

Recently I read an article in a journal to which I subscribe and quickly got very cross. The well-known author, whom I will call Hetty Perry because I want to make this general not personal, had not done herself justice. Worse, she was cheating her readers including of course me. I don’t like being cheated so I immediately sat down and fired off the following to her (having found her email address through Google).

'I am a professional author and also a subscriber to the Blank Magazine. After reading your current effort I feel like asking for my money back.

You should be ashamed of putting so little effort into an article: I certainly would be. In fact it wouldn’t happen, for I have too much professional pride.

Your title is the interesting ‘How I climbed Kilimanjaro’, but you don’t even mention that mountain. [I am disguising everything here.] You don’t give the reader anything but waffle. I should think you sat down and tossed it off in five minutes. Superficial isn’t the word. It’s a disgrace. I’m surprised your editor lets you get away with it.'

The email was returned by MAILER DAEMON, so I did another Google search, found Hetty Perry (as I thought) at a different address and tried again. I received the following-

'What a terribly rude email! You’ve written to a namesake, without checking your facts thoroughly (which good authors are supposed to do). When you write back to apologise, please tell me how you found this email address.

Thank you,

A different Hetty Perry.'

My answer was-

'1. What I said was not ‘terribly rude’. It was a justified rebuke.
2. I shall not apologise to you because the mistake was your fault. Instead, you should apologise to me for using a misleading name on the Internet. Churchill always wrote as ‘Winston S Churchill’ to avoid confusion with the American novelist Winston Churchill. If he could do it, so can you.
3. I found your email address through Google. How else would I have found it?'

I am not going to give you the full text of Hetty’s reply because it really was rude and I like to keep the language of these Blogs decent. But it raised several issues which seem worth devoting a moment or two’s attention to.

First, it contained obscene abuse, which must always be a breach of Netiquette. Civilised people conduct their disputes in rational terms; oafs descend to the gutter because their command of language is inadequate.

Second, Hetty said my note was ‘terribly rude, since it was sent to the wrong person’. As this was done inadvertently it can’t have been rude, let alone terribly rude.

Next, Hetty twice accused me of invading her privacy by sending her my mistaken email. Anyone who puts their email address on a website invites the sending of emails to it, so this objection is fatuous.

Finally Hetty showed herself to be obtuse by asking how can use of one’s own name as an email address be misleading. I had explained that in my point numbered 2, which it seems she was incapable of grasping. I will try to explain it again. If an obscure person has the same name as a famous person it avoids confusion if the former changes their name slightly for public use, as Churchill did. (Admittedly he was not obscure, which only shows what a great man he was.) My wife once saw advertised a book on Oxford by ‘Peter Snow’. She bought a copy and gave it to me as a birthday present because she knew I was interested in the broadcaster Peter Snow, who attended my old college Balliol. We were both annoyed to find the author was some nonentity using the same name.

Now what do you think about all this? Do let me know. I would say that my communications, though forthright, were not actually ‘rude’ – a rather silly epithet which, like ‘common’, is beloved of suburbia and the provinces. But then many people today do not like forthright speaking, which they dismiss as ‘judgmental’. However if you cross these people in the slightest way they swiftly heap on you in return gross language which is not merely judgmental but boorish and probably obscene.

Then there is this absurd notion that sending an email to someone infringes their privacy. This seems to stem from article 8 of the Human Rights Convention, embodied in our law by the Human Rights Act of 1998. There is lessening emphasis on article 10 (freedom of speech). Indeed I would say that in England today free speech is pretty much dead.

Postscript I was not altogether surprised to find on investigation that the Hetty Perry I mistakenly wrote to, and who heaped me with obloquy in return, is a tutor in social sciences at a provincial university.

6 Dec 2004

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