The Empowerment of Words

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 […]

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.

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  • Really?

    Was a follow up of this article really needed?

    • Ed Bannister

      You would not believe how much rubbish I had spouted at me on facebook.

      also, I’m a firm believer in beating the horse until it is dead, before turning it into delicious delicious lasagne.

      • Tesco, Jeremy Clarkson’s Horse

        As a horse who has had his species subject to immeasurable generations of slavery, forced labour and inhumane treatment by the human race – in particular white middle-class men and women – I find that joke extremely offensive and un-PC, so I’ll be seeing you in court soon!!!

        • Ed Bannister

          Pony up bro, we’re going to war.

  • This needed to be said.

    This is a brilliant article, Edmund. I agree that something said, unaired, should not impact on someone’s career. I bet most of the people now outraged by the language that Clarkson used also laughed at most episodes of Top Gear. People jump on these things just to have an opinion and it’s wrong. Intent is one of the most important things here and I think a lot of people have missed that.

  • hopeful

    as the next generation to be moving into the ‘adultworld’ i think we ALL as young adults need to realise, we have all grown up in a diverse and accepted society; the media, and the older ‘set in their ways’ members of society are not going to be the majority in a few years. no more do the majority care about ethnicity or any other ‘social grouping’ for that matter? i’m sure they can’t, no one i know does. i would like to think i am not totally nïave to the discrimination in society, but rather than argue and try to prove points in articles and comments about equality, inequality is a thing that shouldnt and hopefully won’t continue happen? people born today have equal chances surely? if that isnt the case, and i am more nïave than i think, please inform me, but surely people can see how all students and other young adults are accepting/just in jest when they say offensive slurs.

  • siggy

    You sir have hit the nail on the head. A fantastic article. If only more people could see and use common sense.

  • Former Tab Ed

    Great article Ed. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

  • Erebus

    Good article. Words are now treated as offensive without context being taken into account.

    People calling for Clarkson’s firing treated him as if he shouted the n-word passing a black person on the street. He didn’t even say the word.

    Another recent example is of a Labour MP’s description of Pfizer’s proposed takeover of AstraZeneca to rape, no doubt the usual suspects will be outraged even if still if the definition is still a valid metaphor.

  • Bleh

    YOU calling anyone ignorant? The same person who had to bolster your original ignorance with something milder just so a few more ignorant white people could come to your aid with “Great article, man” comments? It does not get better than this.

    • Ed Bannister

      You’re not actually making a point here, nor responding to the article. What you’re doing here is getting irate, and allowing for your personal opinions and dislike of my own to cloud any actual rational or well constructed reply…which sounds not a little ignorant to me. Come back when you’re feeling more loquacious.

      • Tom

        I’ll bite.

        Your habit of responding to all comments on your articles with accusations that the commenter is ignorant doesn’t seem to back up your claim that you enjoy ‘debate’. The commenter has called you ignorant, which you reply to by saying that they are simply getting irate and not giving a well constructed reply…and then go on to say that the commenter is the ignorant one. Is that a well constructed reply?
        In fact the commenter DID have a point, which you seem to have missed. His/her point was that your opinions (in his/her opinion) are ignorant and therefore that it is unreasonable for you to say that other people’s views are ignorant. But that’s by the by, personally responding to all criticism is your choice.

        Let me explain why I think your opinions are, if not ignorant, then at least misguided. I happen to agree with you that this particular instance of Clarkson’s offensive idiocy should not have created the scandal it did. He said the n word (yes he did, listen to it again it’s quite clear), but as you point out it was never meant for broadcast. On the other hand, Clarkson has repeatedly, knowingly, allowed episodes of Top Gear to be broadcast which contain outright racial slurs used as tongue-in-cheek, winking jokes (the ‘slope on a bridge’ thing is the best example of this). He is well aware that this will create controversy and offence.

        I can understand your annoyance at political correctness, it can feel like someone (‘the left’ or whatever) is trying to suck all of the fun out of what seem to you to be harmless jokes that couldn’t possibly offend. But have you considered how many of those jokes your socio-cultural group is the butt of? As another straight, white, (fairly) middle class male I can answer that for you: none.

        Articles like yours are the product of a certain group of people becoming upset that they have to sacrifice something they enjoy (jokes that don’t offend them). You have to accept that just because you don’t find something offensive, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t offensive. Rather than accept this sacrifice (and it is a sacrifice) because it’s the right thing to do, you’d rather argue that there is a whole culture of offence, and that it’s not you who is wrong but everyone else. To my mind, that is what is truly ignorant.

        Political correctness is on the whole, I believe, a good thing. It is imperfect, and there is much discussion to be had on where the boundaries are, what is an appropriate response so offensive behaviour and whether certain things are judged to have been said in private or in public. It’s an ongoing process, but one that is worthwhile. Thank’s to political correctness this is now a much more welcoming country to live in, for the majority of people, that it was a few decades ago.

        There, is that loquacious enough for you?

        • Tom

          No response? But I thought you liked debate?

          • Ed Bannister

            Terribly sorry, I thought all this had blown over!

            Reet, lessgo. First off, I’d say that they didn’t give me a huge amount to respond to – my point about just waving the ignorance accusation appearing to be a tad hypocritical remains valid here, as I’m not sure what else I’m supposed to really respond with. “Why thank you Bleh, I am ignorant, I’d just been too engrossed in my own ignorance to properly notice” would hardly have sufficed. I would have no objection to the comment if it backed up the “You’re ignorant” with some justification, which seems fair enough.

            Nor am I denying that many of Clarkson’s jokes have sailed somewhat close to the wind. I’ll admit the ‘slope on a bridge’ somewhat confused me, as I’d never seen slope used as a racial slur before. I can’t guarantee that it wasn’t intended, but the obscurity does provide a form of cover and I can’t pass a judgement without being in full possession of the facts.

            I don’t blame ‘the left’ for political correctness, I blame a system that’s become too afraid of offence and negative publicity. Gordon Brown referring to ‘that bigoted woman’ in the run up to the 2010 election perfectly summarises this – the woman expounded on some violently bigoted opinions, but because he picked up on it and commented (in private, or so he thought) a public apology was demanded and it was used as yet another stick to beat the fellow, not that he needed to provide more! I’d also say that it’s unfortunate that there aren’t more jokes that make the straight, white, middle class male the butt of them. I’d welcome them, and more – you’ve gotta be able to laugh at yourself. I’m not demanding that we all just make jokes about minorities, christ. Rip on us as much as possible!

            I think the judgement you draw is a bit strict. I’m not saying it’s right to go out of your way to cause offence, but I do believe there is a culture of it. The bigoted woman, Ed Miliband having to apologise in the last week for posing with The Sun – Brian May had to apologise for referring to the Badger cull as ‘genocide’. People get so bogged down in trying to trip others up, in trying to weaken their position. Brian May’s point about the cull got completely lost in the midst of the genocide comment, the Pfizer take over was side tracked by the rape analogy. I don’t think people should have the right to make people feel unsafe, like second class citizens or inferior based upon general characteristics. I’m not demanding that we ostracise people for being different, just that we don’t try and take offence at every.little.thing.

            Does that make sense? I’m all for laws that stop abuse and that make this country a better place to live in for every individual, I just believe that there’s a fine line between intended abuse and just taking everything too damn seriously.

            Sorry for the delayed reply sirrah, deliciously loquacious! Hope you see it, and cheers for biting. 😉

    • Ed Bannister

      Also, I’m not here for the ‘great article, man’ comments. People like you that fundamentally disagree give me far greater pleasure, because not only am I under your skin I get to debate! And I love debate. Don’t stymie it with a bland rebuttal of my opinions now – or should I just stop feeding the troll?