Cumberbatch: the Umbrage Police claim another scalp


Benedict ‘Sherlock’ Cumberbatch has said he is “a complete fool”, an “idiot”, “thoughtless” and that he is “devastated” for having inadvertently used the term “coloured” to describe black people on a US talk show.

It’s depressing enough that he felt the obligation to apologise. But what’s worse is that he felt the need to do so so grovellingly, self-abasingly and profusely.

Yes, we all know why he did it. It’s Oscar nomination season coming up, Cumberbatch is a possible contender for his portrayal of fashionably autistic, gay code-breaker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, and Hollywood is notoriously PC and squeamish about issues to do with race.

But if anyone who owes anyone an apology, here, it’s not poor put-upon Cumberbatch but the noisome professional offence-takers who by seeking to make political mileage out of such achingly trivial issues are creating a climate of linguistic fear in which good people suffer.

First, that word “coloured”. Yes, it may be a little old fashioned. As Sarah Vine rightly notes it’s “The kind of thing your granny might say and which might compel you to lean over and gently whisper in her ear: ‘No one says ‘coloured’ any more, gran. It’s not the done thing’. To which she might reply: ‘Really, dear? I had no idea.'”

What it definitely isn’t, though, is in any way malign or pejorative. Indeed, there was a time – back in the Seventies, when it was used pretty regularly and in the politest of company – when it would have been considered positively PC.

Second, the context. Cumberbatch was using the now-apparently verboten word in the course of a diatribe against the lack of job opportunities for ethnic actors in the UK film industry. In other words, he was making a point of almost toe-curling bien-pensant rectitude. That his reward for this should be to be taken to task by the Umbrage Police is almost as absurd as if a VC hero, having single-handedly taken an enemy machine-gun position, should then be disciplined for his cruel and unusual use of a bayonet.

Third, the hypocrisy. Are we to understand then, that from now on, the National Association For The Advancement Of Colored People will be changing its name to the National Association For The Advancement Of People Of Color? (Until such time, of course, when “People of Color” too becomes discredited and unfashionable, as no doubt it will eventually because that, unfortunately, seems to be the deal: today’s PC euphemism is tomorrow’s inexcusable racial slur).

This, though, unfortunately, is how the liberal-left rolls. As Alex Wickham pointed out here yesterday, it’s the liberals who are the new puritans that want to control your life.

One of the ways they are achieving this is in their vexatious and aggressive policing of the spoken word – on college campuses, in the media, on Twitter, on TV chat shows, in schools, in books. The purpose of this will be more than familiar to students of the Frankfurt school of Cultural Marxism and to readers of Saul Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s about generating a cultural climate in which no one feels quite comfortable to express themselves freely for fear, as Cumberbatch did, of breaking some new unwritten rule of which they weren’t hitherto aware.

And it’s also, of course, about identity politics and power.

In a piece for New York Magazine, liberal author Jonathan Chait gave some choice examples of how frantically and earnestly the power game is played in progressive circles these days. He quoted from a Facebook discussion group called Binders Full Of Women Writers.

On July 10, for instance, one member in Los Angeles started a conversation urging all participants to practice higher levels of racial awareness. “Without calling anyone out specifically, I’m going to note that if you’re discussing a contentious thread, and shooting the breeze … take a look at the faces in the user icons in that discussion,” she wrote. “Binders is pretty diverse, but if you’re not seeing many WOC/non-binary POC in your discussion, it’s quite possible that there are problematic assumptions being stated without being challenged.” (“POC” stands for “people of color.” “WOC” means “women of color.” “Non-binary” describes people who are either transgender or identify as a gender other than traditionally male or female.)

Two members responded lightly, one suggesting that such “call-outs” be addressed in private conversation and another joking that she was a “gluten free Jewish WWC” — or Woman Without Color. This set off more jokes and a vicious backlash. “It seems appropriate to hijack my suggestion with jokes. I see,” the Los Angeles member replied. “Apparently whatever WOC have to say is good for snark and jokes,” wrote another. Others continued: “The level of belittling, derailing, crappy jokes, and all around insensitivity here is astounding and also makes me feel very unsafe in this Big Binder.” “It is literally fucking insane. I am appalled and embarrassed.”

You see what’s going on here. The “Woman of Color” in this particular game is demanding special privileges on account of the fact that she has been born black and female.

You can also see why this tendency is so dangerous. Any debate worthy of the name depends for its quality on the ideas expressed, not on the identity of the people expressing them. This is the essence of free speech: everyone should be free to express themselves on equal terms, without fear or favour; and everyone else should be free to applaud their argument or knock it down with a better argument. Yes, in the process, there’s a danger that someone somewhere might end up choosing to take “offence” at the ideas expressed. But this risk is far preferable to the alternative: a world where certain designated groups – WOC, Muslims, government-endorsed climate scientists, whoever – are deemed so special as to above the rules governing everyone else.

Chait’s argument is great as far as it goes. But as Sean Davis notes at The Federalist, there are some double standards at play here.

A person who doesn’t want charges of bigotry hurled around in order to delegitimize another person’s opinion would not deliberately and repeatedly use language that’s primarily hurled against Holocaust deniers (as an aside, who on earth denies that Obamacare exists or that climates change?). But Chait himself does that all the time. A writer adamantly opposed to the political prosecution of thought crimes would not write the following: “Why Climate-Science Denialism Should Disqualify Anyone From Holding Office.”

Quite. Like the scorpion ferried across a river on the back of the frog in the fable, liberals – not even occasionally reasonable ones like Chait – cannot help themselves. Given the chance, they will almost always resort to the identity politics/language-policing/offence-taking get-out because the instinct is built into their DNA.

Personally, though, my attitude to these ridiculous people’s rules is much the same as the one I hold to this idea, currently fashionable in the Umma, that everyone – not just Muslims – should be subject to Islamist codes on blasphemy.

Since when? Who made that rule? Certainly not me or anyone I respect.

Just look at the arrogance of this article written in the Guardiangraph in response to the Cumberbatch story. It’s called The 9 Words So Offensive We Need To Ditch Them. Now.

(Don’t you just love that petulant, footstomping “Now” at the end?)

Among the “inappropriate” words that “we” would (apparently) like to see dropped “today” are: gay, spastic, retarded, paedo, half-caste, rapey, cretin, dyke and special. These are words which, currently, the author sententiously informs us,  “many people struggle to fully eliminate from their vocabulary – even if they knew they shouldn’t really use them this way.”

Who is this “we” is what I should like to know. Maybe there’s a reason why people struggle fully to eliminate these words from their vocabulary. Maybe it’s because they find them useful; maybe it’s because even – heaven forfend – they very much enjoy winding up prim, disapproving missies like the girl who wrote the piece; maybe they enjoy kicking against the PC traces.

Occasionally, my kids ask me whether a particular word they’ve used is offensive or not (usually in the context of: “This got me into trouble with my teachers. Is that fair?”) and the answer I invariably give is that it depends on context. There are words, for example, which are absolutely right in the heat of passion with your loved one, for example, which you probably wouldn’t use while having tea with Queen; there are words that sound perfect on a rap album but which you wouldn’t necessarily use in a sensitive discussion about black underemployment in the entertainment industry.

No word should be forbidden. It’s just a question of how you use it. Even liberals understood this once. I’m not sure they do any more – and that’s worrying.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.