Sunday, May 4, 2014

Jeremy Clarkson and the 'N'-word

Joanna was confused. 

“So why did Jeremy Clarkson use the ‘N’-word in ‘Eeny Meeny Miny Moe’?” she asked innocently. 

Being American, my wife was brought up in a world where the only creatures ever caught by the toe were tigers. 

Jo is a modern woman, born in 1970. At school in Los Angeles, they always used tigers in this playground rhyme. My own children used tigers too, and my eldest is 32. They would no more consider using the ‘N’-word in a sentence than they would use the “C”-word in front of their parents. 

The ‘N’-word was part of an earlier generation. Mine, and Clarkson’s.

In the late 1950s at Priory Junior School in Tynemouth, I guess I must have chanted it along with my classmates. I vaguely recall that we ended it with the quaint phrase: “Boy Scout – you’re out!” (or the alternative: "Girl Guide - step aside!").

This was just a few years after West Indian immigrants first began to arrive in the UK. A few years later we were taught that using the “N”-word was not just wrong, it was hurtful, offensive and revolting. So from that moment I rewired my brain to exclude it from my onboard lexicon. 

Just as over the years I’ve excluded lots of other words that might cause offence, like “queer” or “spastic”. It’s what you do if you’re a civilized human being. Especially if you expect to work for a public service organisation like the BBC. 

Of course, occasionally I have made mistakes. When I was working in Los Angeles I was sharply pulled up for using the phrase “Red Indian”. 

“They are Native Americans,” my HR manager told me severely. I meekly apologised and have never used it again. As I stopped addressing female reality contestants as “girls”. 

“They are women, not children.” 

And I learnt that people whom the British describe as “black” are actually African Americans. 

It’s not hard to adapt. You just take note of what people find unacceptable, and change the dictionary in your brain. So as not to offend. 

Unless, of course, you’re a racist. In which case, what you do is keep the word in your head, and use it when you’re in safe company with other racists. Or make a joke about it for the benefit of those racists. Which is exactly what Jeremy Clarkson likes to do. 

Clarkson is 8 years younger than I am. He also has three children. He therefore can’t use ignorance as an excuse. There has been much speculation in the press about whether or not he actually used the “N”-word on tape. One tabloid employed an audio investigator to analyse the recording. 

Of course, it doesn’t matter a jot whether you can hear it or not. What Clarkson did was make his audience think he was using the “N”-word, but knew that he wasn’t supposed to – so he mumbled. As a joke. So that other racists watching would find it funny. It was a nasty racist joke. 

But there’s something more sinister here, which so far hasn’t been raised in the press. Clarkson was not alone. 

All presenters have a producer or director on location with them, editorially responsible for everything that’s filmed. If this were one isolated slip of the tongue, it could have been consigned to the cutting room floor, no eyebrows raised. Everyone make mistakes. The location producer would have said: That’s not very funny, Jeremy. Let’s find another joke. 

But he didn’t. Instead he allowed it to be repeated twice. Why? 

Did he also think it was funny? Or was he not strong enough to control Clarkson? The BBC should be finding out which it is and, if necessary, appointing a new set of stronger, more enlightened producers. 

Eventually they rerecorded the sequence with the word “teacher”, presumably because the production team needed another easy group to derogate, not because our children actually use it in their playground rhymes. 

Perhaps instead, they should have used this new version. I’m sure it would catch on, and offend absolutely no one: 

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, 
Catch a racist by his words, 
If he mumbles, let him go. 
That’s right – fire him.

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