On the day the Jeremy Clarkson “N” word story broke, I was sitting with friends of the same age in their kitchen, trying to remember when it was that the children’s choosing rhyme “Eeny meeny minie mo” (or however you spell it: there are myriad variants) transmuted into its politically correct, N-word free modern version.
First, I seem to recall, the offending word was changed to “tigger”. Then – so that even the memory of the unfortunate rhyme was expunged – it became “tiger.” Today, most children who recite the poem probably aren’t even aware of its sinister, “racist” past. But for my generation – which is pretty much Clarkson’s generation: anyone born before, say, 1970 – it was so unexceptionable as to pass without comment, even were you to be overheard using it in front of your left-wing teacher in your kindergarten classroom.
This is something our politically correct culture has contrived to forget about the past: deliberately, I think, because the totalitarian left is the enemy of history and tradition and would like to declare every year Year Zero.
I can tell you now because I remember it well that when we used that rhyme as children and we came to the “N” word, there wasn’t a racist thought in our heads. It was just another word in a ritual incantation, not unlike, say “trespasses” in the Lord’s Prayer.
Sure it might have had a meaning once but you never thought about it or analysed it. Did we know the “N” word had offensive connotations? Well of course we did but the way we used it in the rhyme wasn’t one of those occasions.
There’s a world of difference between chanting such a word in a children’s rhyme and directing it, with deliberate venom, in the street at a black person. Everyone knows this. Most people with any sense, anyway. It ought to be so obvious as scarcely to need restating.
Here below are just a few examples of when I think you might reasonably argue it’s still OK for a white person to use the “N” word without it meaning they’re a member of the Ku Klux Klan or that they ought to be sacked from their job forthwith.
1. In a quiz, when they’re asked the name of Guy Gibson’s dog in The Dambusters – or, indeed, X 3, the code phrase used by the Lancaster pilots to signal that the dams had been successfully breached.
2. When you’re quoting the name of an Agatha Christie thriller.
3. If someone asks you what NWA stands for.
4. It’s your Latin class and you’re saying the word for “black”.
5. You’re starring as a nasty white person in a liberal-guilt-porn movie such as Twelve Years A Guardian Reader and you are required to make your character more realistic and unpleasant.
6. You’re recalling a great Clint Eastwood scene from Escape From Alcatraz.
7. You’re talking about the funniest moment in the entire history of South Park, when Randy appears on Wheel Of Fortune and the clue is “People who annoy you” – and the word is “N-GGERS”
8. You have become so immersed in rap culture that you think you are black and start referring affectionately even to your white friends as “Homes”, “bro”, “blud”, or “mah niggah”.
9. You are an outspoken controversialist who loathes the stultifying effects of political correctness and wants to test its boundaries.
10. You are in a kitchen with friends, discussing the Jeremy Clarkson “N-word” “scandal”, trying to remember exactly what decade it was that the “N-word” in Eeny Meeny Minie Mo went off-limits.
Now suppose in that last instant there had been someone with a tape recorder present. And suppose they had tried to present this in a left-wing newspaper like the Guardian or the Mirror as shocking evidence of a hated, right-leaning commentator’s evident racist tendencies: the irreverence in his voice; the fact that there were children present during the discussion; the evident nostalgia for a past where the language police weren’t out to get you for every vaguely distasteful phrase you may have used…
Even as a recently as decade ago, I would suggest, such a thing would have been unthinkable. As unthinkable as the possibility that a team from the Sunday Mirror would have been able to get hold of some outtakes from an old recording of Top Gear, in which maybe or maybe not the presenter recites the Eeny Meeny Miny Mo rhyme cheekily using the now verboten word from his childhood, and turn it into a story so scandalous that it threatened the ruination of the presenter’s career.
Why would it have been unthinkable? Because even after a decade of Tony Blair people still had a sense of perspective. It would have been perfectly well understood that Jeremy Clarkson is an outspoken, cheeky, politically incorrect presenter who likes to push things to the edge; that the harmfulness of the “N-word” is dependent on context; that using it does not automatically make you a ‘racist’ (whatever that word means); that anyway, the offending incident wasn’t even broadcast, so what business is it of the Sunday Mirror to be intruding on a private moment; that all these bien-pensants now calling for Clarkson’s head – among them the noisome Piers Morgan – are doing so less out of affronted righteousness than simple resentment and jealousy at Clarkson’s salary and popularity.
Clarkson himself – a much more intelligent, thoughtful and perspicacious fellow than he sometimes likes to let on in his bullish public persona – observed this social shift in a column he wrote in 2005, cited in this very readable Observer article by Tim Adams.
In 2005, Jeremy Clarkson devoted a Sunday Timescolumn to the shifting taboos of language. “Time moves on,” he wrote,to its core is now considered normal.” His example was the word “fuck”,which, he suggested, “according to the last set of BBC guidelines Isaw, is still more likely to cause offence than the word ‘nigger’.”
Theguidelines, of course, were way out of touch. “‘Nigger’ is a good casein point,” Clarkson went on. “When I was growing up it was no moreshocking than ‘cauliflower’. You didn’t see Bill Grundy being escortedfrom Broadcasting House [for saying ‘fuck’ on air] because you werewatching Alf Garnett on the other side, roaring with laughter as hepeppered the screen with his racist abuse. And yet now, 30 years later,’nigger’ has gone. In fact, it is just about the only word I simplywould not let my children use…”
As an example of just how far times have changed in so short a space, note that Clarkson did not even back then feel compelled to use the “N-word” euphemism – as has since become standard, as you can see in almost all the articles recently published on the subject including this one.
Social mores change and that’s fine, up to point. But the purpose of changing social mores in a civilised society ought surely to be to create a world in which everyone feels happier, more comfortable and at ease, not one in which in order to correct an injustice perpetrated in the past against one persecuted minority a new fashionable hate group is created and singled out and deemed fair game for bullying, vindictive injustice.
There is nothing healthy or fair about this attack on Clarkson. In fact it is downright sinister and Stasi-like. The fact that hardly anyone is coming forward to say this – with such notable, brave exceptions as Michael Gove – is more worrying still. If freedom of speech is now impermissible even in private, then we are well on the way towards tyranny.