As our sensibilities become more acute and our sense of propriety more heightened, we refine and broaden our notion of racial slurs.
What in the recent past would have been considered an innocent joke is well on its way to becoming an imprisonable offence. In a parallel development, what used to be treated as an imprisonable offence, incitement to terrorism, has become a valid expression of diversity.
Yet as our keen sensibilities gently waft up to cloud cuckoo land, there’s Russia to remind us of the times olden and golden. The times when a racially offensive remark was longing for genocide, rather than a simple acknowledgement that certain indigenous racial characteristics do exist.
As an example of the earth-bound gravitational pull exerted by Russia, witness the current scandal involving decorative items made out of human skin. As an example of the gravity-defying, airy-fairy motion in the opposite direction, observe the Western race scandal revolving around the stereotypical dietary habits of American blacks.
The latter is closer to home, so let’s start with that. Two golfers, Sergio García (white) from Spain and Tiger Woods (half-black) from the USA have a history of bad blood. I don’t know what caused the original rift, but everyone who follows golf knows the two men can’t stand each other.
Building on this common knowledge, a humorous interviewer asked Mr García if he was planning to invite Mr Woods to dinner. Yes, replied the golfer, and I’ll serve fried chicken.
That delicacy is a staple in the southern states, and has been since time immemorial. Since black slaves were originally brought to that part of America, they too developed a taste for chicken pieces deep-fried in batter. This affection is by no means exclusive to them – the KFC chain was started by an impeccably white Kentucky Colonel Sanders, and it’s widely, if incomprehensibly, popular all over the world.
Still, Mr García was unmistakeably referring to Mr Wood’s complexion. Even so, the supposed insult doesn’t register very high on the seismic scale of racial invective. Suppose for argument’s sake that the roles were reversed and Mr Woods would say that he’d serve paella to Mr García. Would the ensuing outcry reach the same decibel level?
Certain racial stereotypes exist – and persist – because there’s an element of truth to them. The Jews are associated with chicken soup, the Italians with pasta, the North Africans with couscous, the French with frogs’ legs, the Russians with vodka. A reference to their culinary preferences would normally fall somewhere between ethnic awareness and an innocent jibe.
In the past that sort of thing wouldn’t even have registered, never mind caused a worldwide scandal. Yet our times are far from normal, and the way Mr García is being treated in the press makes it hard to distinguish between him and a cross-burning Ku-Klux-Klan member clad in a white bed sheet.
George O’Grady, the chief executive of the European tour, fanned a flickering flame into a brush fire. Trying to stick up for Mr García, he vouchsafed that the golfer has many ‘coloured athletes’ among his friends. What ignited passions wasn’t the echo of the old line ‘some of my best friends are Jewish’ but the word ‘coloured’.
Mr O’Grady meant well, but he got his modifiers terribly confused. In no way wishing to exculpate this egregious affront to human decency, family values and moral fibre, one still has to suggest that it’s not always easy to keep all those adjectives straight.
Our language is fluid, and what one day is considered a stylistically neutral description may the next day become a criminal insult. For example, when I was a child the word ‘Negro’ had no stylistic colouring whatever, as it were. Conversely, the word ‘black’ was regarded as a racist insult. The word ‘coloured’ was a colloquial and anodyne counterpart to ‘Negro’. These days Americans are supposed to say ‘Afro-American’, with the British favouring ‘Afro-Caribbean’.
Add to this a full repertoire of undeniably pejorative terms, and our vocabulary becomes a veritable minefield strewn with charges ready to go off. Messrs García and O’Grady stepped on a mine, and pieces of their hides are being blown all over our press, that vigilant guardian of probity.
Now compare this scandal to the one making news in Russia. Commenting on a film about Smersh, Soviet wartime counterintelligence, the liberal commentator Leonid Gozman took exception to the portrayal of those butchers as selfless heroes. On any moral level, he suggested, they were no different from the SS.
Now, thanks largely to Smersh’s good offices, 157,000 Soviet soldiers were executed by military tribunals during the war – often for such awful offences as telling a joke about Stalin or suggesting that German planes weren’t bad. Add to this at least twice as many shot out of hand without the benefit of even a kangaroo trial, and the casualties inflicted by Smersh on its own army outstrip those suffered by the US military in four years of desperate fighting against the Germans and the Japanese.
A comparison to the SS thus doesn’t sound particularly far-fetched, does it? Not so, according to the columnist Uliana Skoybeda. Writing for Russia’s highest-circulation daily, she expressed a heart-felt regret that the Germans hadn’t ‘made lampshades out of all the ancestors of today’s liberals’ – such as Mr Gozman, whose name is Jewish.
It has to be said that the Germans made a pretty good fist of that, though not, according to Skoybeda, good enough. They only managed to murder half the European Jews, with the other half left to procreate and eventually produce venomous snakes like Gozman with his libellous comparisons.
Now that’s what I call a racial slur (a Jew in Russia is a racial, not religious, entity). That’s how it was taken by the tiny Russian liberal press, while the dominant voice screamed all over the country that Gozman had only himself to blame – just as the Jews were largely responsible for their own holocaust.
We ought to be thankful to the Russians for reminding us what racism really is. So let’s just compare the two scandals and ask ourselves a rhetorical question, ‘Have we all gone mad?’