The laddish petrol head Jeremy Clarkson is in deep trouble.
His own fault, really. Trying to make a point that there wasn’t much to tell two cars apart, the host of Top Gear declaimed the old counting rhyme that unfortunately contains the objectionable – nay, criminal – ‘n’ word.
Why couldn’t he just say, “Catch a male person of the Afro-Caribbean descent by the toe…”? So fine, this would have erred against metre and rhyme. But at least such usage wouldn’t have hurt our brittle sensibilities.
Or else Clarkson could have followed the officially approved version of the hitherto offensive rhyme: “… catch a tiger by the toe, if he hollers let him go…” The metre and rhyme would have been intact, though sticklers for zoological detail might object that a tiger has no toes.
He has claws, and catching him by one of them may elicit a more decisive response than just hollering (which, incidentally, tigers don’t do either). But never mind all this nitpicking: propriety would have been observed and that’s all that matters.
By the same token, we must all be made, on pain of imprisonment, to talk about a tiger in the woodpile, even though the stripy ones seldom bury themselves in one of those when they wish to be stealthy.
Clarkson’s excuse? He claims he didn’t really say it and, if he did, it wasn’t meant to be racist. Pull the other one, Jeremy. Anything is racist if we say it is.
Never mind how you use the ‘n’ word. To a modern moralist weaned on sanctimonious political correctness, someone who unthinkingly utters an ancient phrase never meant to be offensive in the first place is as culpable as a thug who screams the ‘n’ word at a black chap on a bus.
The context doesn’t matter; only the text does. To us the word itself is well-nigh criminal, regardless of the intent behind it. Then again, if the offensive intent is there, any word can work as an egregious insult.
For example, you might think that ‘turnip’ has no more offensive potential than any other root vegetable. Yet, when the tabloid press used the word to describe Graham Taylor, the hapless manager of the England football team back in the ‘90s, ‘turnip’ was used pejoratively.
When ‘dumbbell’ is used to describe an exercise weight, it’s stylistically neutral. When it’s used to describe the person who exercises with it, it’s an insult. When denoting smelting waste, ‘slag’ is fine. When describing a woman, it’s rude. In the context of Swiss Alps, the word ‘slope’ is neutral, in the context of the Far East it isn’t – and so forth.
But the ‘n’ word is denied such latitude. So what if Clarkson wasn’t trying to convey a negative view of multiculturalism? So what if the counting rhyme has existed for over two centuries? This only goes to show how much progress we’ve made.
In the barbaric times of Byron, Coleridge and Keats people still thought that words are insulting only if they’re meant to insult. Aren’t you glad we know better?
These days the worst insults aren’t personal; they’re collective. Insulting an individual is fine, and it’s no use seeking recourse if a drunk lout calls you a f***ing c*** out of the blue. But insert the word ‘black’ between the two obscenities, and it’s not a person but a category that’s insulted. A bit of nice innocent fun becomes a criminal offence.
Only groups are allowed to have dignity these days, and this must be jealously guarded by everyone, not just the group members. Thus a young Englishman once took offence when I referred to American Indians as just that.
The youngster contorted his features in a symbiotic message of opprobrium and said indignantly, “You mean native Americans?” Now my reply was indeed an insult, but a strictly individual one (I’ll give you a clue: the second word was ‘off’).
The truly emetic part of it all is that the guardians of linguistic probity don’t really care about the presumably offended group. They simply know that they gain a greater power every time they win a linguistic skirmish.
The face value of the issue doesn’t even come into it. Thus since 1999 there have been numerous instances in the United States when a public official has had to apologise for using the word ‘niggardly’.
Never mind that it has no etymological link to the racial slur – in fact, ‘niggardly’ comes from an Old Norse root, whereas the person to be caught by his toe got his name from the opposite end of Europe. It’s not just semantics but also phonetics that can be used as an offensive weapon against sanity.
We are rapidly catching up in this madness with the USA, the pioneer of political correctness. It has to be said that the Americans guard their primacy assiduously. To that end, Mark Twain’s American classic Huckleberry Finn has been removed from most school libraries because it contains a character named Nigger Jim.
It takes some doing for us to keep up, but we must try. Our next step should be to flog Jeremy Clarkson publicly on the bonnet of a Ferrari. And then we can start a campaign to rename Nigeria. May I suggest Sanctimonia?