The importance of sensitivity

This week, Carol Thatcher, a TV “personality”, economist and daughter of Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister, was dropped from a BBC TV show for calling a sportsman a golliwog. The remark was made off-air, in the “green room” in which participants in TV shows are fitted with their microphones and wait for their slot; a golliwog is a doll with a black face, and the term is also used as a term of racial abuse for black people. There has been considerable debate as to whether she should have been sacked, particularly after Jonathan Ross who was merely suspended for inappropriate remarks made on air, at prime time. Also this week, there was a short article in Linux Format (LXF 116, page 40) about two female developers who were offended by “an off-colour joke submitted to their development list … written to sound like a cologne advertisement aimed at ‘smelly developers’ in order to attract women”. This article basically said “lighten up, girls”, and the depressing thing was that this article was written by a woman.

What these issues have in common is the failure by some people to recognise that they have to be careful of what they say when they are out of their “comfort zone”. A joke which might go down a storm in the pub might be terribly offensive in mixed-sex company, and the same might be true of jokes at the expense of people of another ethnic background. A good rule of thumb is: if the joke is about people - people’s colour, sex, or some physical eccentricity - then it may well be offensive and you should think twice before using it. I fail to see why people make excuses for this kind of behaviour, when whole careers have been founded on jokes which everyone finds funny and nobody finds offensive.

The article continues in its bitchy Daily Mail-ish tone:

In my day we ignored offensive jokes, laughed off unwanted advances, and proved our worth by our works. We earned our respect. We didn’t demand it or sue for it.

To these women and others like them I say, if you can’t take the heat — get out of the kitchen. If you have no sense of humour, you have no place in Linux development. If you don’t believe me, try reading the comments of just about any commit [i.e. when changes to the code are comitted] — especially the kernel.

I’m not sure when “her day” was, but women did not make the progress they did just by putting up with insults but by fighting them, unless this author has never heard of women’s lib. Men have had to face up to the fact that some aspects of their behaviour were unacceptable because they were not only offensive but also intimidating, something a lot of men have never experienced. While it does sound as though this particular joke was more at the expense of men than women, perhaps these women did not really want to have to deal with sexist jokes while discussing software development at all.

As for the Carol Thatcher “golliwog” affair, the offence it causes black people has been put very eloquently in today’s Guardian by Hannah Pool:

When I hear the word a red mist descends: I don’t want to see it, or even discuss it, all I want is for people to stop saying it and take the damn thing out of my sight. I do not care whether or not it was considered racist when it first appeared in 1873, a fact which is pretty weak as arguments go, I mean come on, how many black people do you think were asked about it then?

Sure, there are far more racist images, but this is one I thought we’d all agreed was unacceptable and now, thanks to Thatcher, when I turn on the radio, television or open my newspaper, I am confronted with it all over again. Each time I hear it, it’s like a fresh punch, a reopening of old wounds, made worse by the fact I’d foolishly assumed the standard of the race debate had risen higher than “is it racist to call a black person a golliwog?” …

The fact that so many white commentators have deigned to tell me they don’t find the term offensive only makes matters worse. I’m not saying you have to be black to have a point of view on this, but you certainly have to be black to have ever been called a golliwog, so when a white man tells me he doesn’t see what the problem is, well, am I really expected to take him seriously?

Meanwhile, it’s also been revealed that Thatcher junior made a whole load of other racist remarks in the same green room, including calling a mixed-race French tennis player a “golliwog Frog”. Excuses have been made for her by the bucketful (I originally wrote “in spades”, but then realised what that word means, besides a gardening implement), among them that the campaign against her is just a left-wing vendetta against her because of who her mother is. Well, if it weren’t for who her mother is, she probably would not be a TV personality at all, and given that it’s the right which is most likely to accuse the BBC of being biased, surely the fact that the BBC have waited this long to get rid of her (and only from that particular show, since the BBC still intends to screen her documentary about her Mum later this year, and she is working on contributions to two other BBC factual programmes) demonstrates otherwise.

Besides, the excuses are all the usual ones: a golliwog is just a toy, and the remark was made in private, lighten up, get a sense of humour. The quibble over the terminology is a fairly common one - I recall a “debate” over the meaning of the word “nig-nog”, with some older contributors claiming that “in their day” it meant a stupid person. In my day, however, I’ve not heard it used on anyone who wasn’t black, however stupid they were, simply because of what “nig-nog” sounds like. If I were to call Carol Thatcher a nig-nog, because you would have to be pretty stupid to think you could make this kind of remark in public without anybody complaining - and just because the microphones were off, it does not make it any less public - I would be laughed at, because of Thatcher’s colour and the well-known racial connotations of this word. Thatcher’s remarks were also in no sense private - they were made in a room belonging to the BBC, with plenty of company including people with connections to the media. Carol Thatcher’s media career is not over, but perhaps this blowing up in her face will teach her a lesson that casual racism is just not acceptable anymore.

The point about the inconsistency with Jonathan Ross’s treatment has some validity; as I wrote at the time, people who use the F-word on BBC radio phone-ins get cut off without any second chances, regardless of the context, so it is entirely appropriate that he was removed from the air. However, Ross’s remarks were personally offensive, not racist, and he was probably more of an asset to the BBC than Thatcher is, hence his substantial salary.

This controversy has displayed the tiresomely regular spectacle of the defence of racially derogatory language, clearly identified by people from the group on the receiving end of it, by people who seem to resent being asked to change their behaviour (and in this case, the woman used two racial slurs in the same breath). What is quite so onerous about this request is hard to appreciate, because golliwog is not a word I use much or ever have done — I cannot remember the last time I used the word before about half an hour ago when I discussed this issue with someone. It is not as if anyone is suggesting that we stop calling these dolls golliwogs, just that we stop using it to refer to black people, which most of us already do not. It is not actually that hard to mind your language, much as you don’t use the F word in front of old ladies or children, so there is no excuse here. Sensitivity to these things is important in a multi-racial and multi-cultural society; it is only those who have never been on the receiving end that fail to realise this.

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