A Liberal Democrat councillor from Cheltenham (that bastion of festivals and classic regency buildings) hit the headlines after he used an offensive racial term four times on camera in a live council meeting. He used the word which dare not speak its name when he referred to the name of his family’s black cat in the 1940s. It did reveal that the way language is viewed can change over time.
I also have a beautiful black cat but his name is Louis, not something beginning with N.
The councillor has subsequently been suspended by his party, but on the back of the appalling death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations it begs the question – what is right and what is wrong when it comes to our language in a free speech democracy?
Many have been offended by the comments, including me. Maybe it was because the word was said so loudly and seemingly without any notion that it would cause offence. What’s also clear though is the degree of offence varies. In discussions with colleagues and friends, everyone feels it’s wrong to use the word but they differ in how it should be treated – a slap on the wrist to full blown expulsion from any elected position.
This saga made me think back to a 1970s sitcom called ‘Mind Your Language’. The plot revolved around a group of foreign students with over the top accents learning English in a classroom. Looking at clips now it is excruciatingly racist and sexist but at the time as a teenager it was a must-watch programme and talked about in school the next day. How things change. Or do they? Is it just that it’s not acceptable to be blatantly racist on TV now but racism still occurs in wider society?
The litmus test of offence should surely be how the minority group referred to feels. As a gay man, I find the word ‘faggot’ repulsive as it is usually used as a form of abuse and in an aggressive tone. But how should I react when it’s used by someone who’s gay and laughing as he does? Do I express outrage or laugh along with it because I know him and think he’s generally OK?
Ultimately it comes down to actions not words. Does an individual show real empathy for and understanding of the needs of minority groups? Do they walk the talk when expressing the desire for equality?
Boris Johnson claims to be strong on equality. When I Tweeted about his references to ‘tank top bum boys’ and how it was demeaning to gay people, I was taken to task by a local Conservative apparatchik who referred to his ‘excellent record’ on equality as London Mayor. I raised a virtual eyebrow, recalling Johnson’s earlier references to ‘watermelon smiles’ and ‘picanninies’. Like most things associated with the man, we don’t know what he really thinks but what we do know is that he craves power and attention.
Should we mind our language? Yes indeed – but in judging others we should see how they act and make our decision based on that. Actions speak loudest.
Cllr Paul Hodgkinson is Group Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Leader of the Opposition on Gloucestershire County Council. He is the councillor for Bourton-on-the-Water and Northleach. He tweets @paulcotswolds