Regular readers of these pages will know I spent rather a lot of my precious revision time defending Clarkson against the allegations of racism. I’d now like to expand on an area of that argument, with regards to the power of words entirely, not just those with regards to ethnicity. Hopefully this’ll stop the more ignorant among you from limiting your comments to ‘LOOK A WHITE, MIDDLE CLASS MALE WANTS TO SAY NAUGHTY WORDS’, although, from previous experience, I doubt that this will have any effect. You scoundrels, you.
What I’d like to focus on here is the intentions behind words, and how that should be considered more important than the words themselves. As a society, we’ve become obsessed with certain expressions. Whether it be race, gender, age, there’s probably a word criticising their usage with the suffix ‘-ist’ or ‘-ism’, and to be labelled thus can destroy careers.
Two crucial tenets of criminal law are mens rea and actus reus. Mens rea is ‘the guilty mind’, and is used to test for criminal intention. If found in accordance with the actus reus (or ‘the guilty act’), it is likely that there will be a criminal conviction obtained. The gist is that for a crime to be committed, there must be both the guilty mind, the intention, and the guilty act. Simple enough? If we then take such principles and apply them to mere words , what emerges is the idea that for phrases to be truly offensive, there must first be the intention to cause offence. This covers situations where an individual truly wants to cause harm – those moronic twitter trolls, hiding behind the anonymity of their keyboard and popping up to fire truly nasty critiques at unsuspecting innocents are still incorporated, but situations where the words are not intended to damage or hurt are exempt.
I have two friends in mind to demonstrate this principle, who I have been unfortunate enough to know for many years. One is a a petite white girl , and the other a non-caucasian male. When they meet the conversation can quite often devolve into a slanging match, where insults of assorted severity are interchanged between one another, based upon whatever so tickles their fancy. Were the ordinary man on the Clapham omnibus unfortunate enough to overhear the conversation, without context, he would likely be flabbergasted at the level of ‘offense’ being bandied back and forth. If recorded, it could severely tank any aspirations either have of ever holding public office later in life (unless they wished to be UKIP councillors). However, on closer inspection of the situation, any reasonable observer would see that it is no more than two good friends engaging in a light hearted verbal sortie, with no negative intent or malice.
Here’s the issue I have with the current atmosphere. Any such utterance that can be taken at face value, is. See the curious case of Paul Chambers for an example. In frustration at an airport closure, he tweeted that if they “didn’t get their shit together, he’d blow the airport sky high!”.The tweet was obviously jovial, but it still landed Chambers a conviction for sending a ‘menacing electronic communication’ that took two years and thousands of pounds in legal fees to have quashed. Common sense needs to be applied everywhere, or those guilty of nothing more than making a joke in poor taste could find themselves having their lives ruined, however well the intended audience received it.
Another example; the Football Association was resoundingly criticised for hiring Reginald D Hunter for the Professional Footballers Association dinner in 2013. He dropped the same word Clarkson reportedly used throughout his set, and after race scandals involving Luis Suarez and John Terry and amid accusations that football was not doing enough to eradicate racism, this went down like the proverbial lead balloon. His own words describe best how the furore should have been treated:
No one got hurt, no one got disenfranchised, no one got raped, so it’s absurd and perverted that it got covered in the media above real issues.
We give words too much power, but why? Are we all afraid that their utterance might create some hitherto unseen time-vortex that drags us back decades, disenfranchising the women and forcing homosexuals to hide their true selves to stay safe? No, because that’s ridiculous. People that use derogatory terms specifically to offend should be criticised, clearly – but they should also be pitied, for their narrow minded, antiquated viewpoints and obvious lack of empathy. Individuals such as Godfrey Bloom should be derided for comments accusing the UK of spending aid in ‘bongo bongo land’, partly because it takes only a basic geographical understanding to see that there’s no such country but primarily because it’s so undeniably obvious that they are feckless, brain-dead remnants of a less inclusive society. Allow them to take their idiotic viewpoints to the grave, and give them exactly how much attention they deserve – none whatsoever.
But for as long as we give words these immense powers, for as long as they are the monster under the bed to our society, those who want to be seen as edgy will use them exactly because they’re told not to. By relaxing, you are not dismissing the centuries of pain that the words once represented. Instead, you remove a key weapon of the uneducated and myopic. Let comedians ridicule, friends banter. Exercise some common sense.
What do you think? Should perception take precedence over intent? Let us know in comments.