Five days ago, I wrote a blog about IQ and Mensa in which I used the phrase “mental retard”. The next day, it was re-published in the Huffington Post.
A couple of days later, having read the Huffington Post piece, a lady called Hannah irately tweeted me saying that “calling vulnerable people ‘freaks’ really shows your true character” and that “comparing people with special needs to freaks” was unacceptable.
Well, I think she missed the point of the piece, in which I argued that people “whom doctors used to call ‘mentally retarded’” and members of Mensa – incorrectly described routinely as “geniuses” – are both freaks by mathematical definition because they each make up less than 2% of the population.
More interesting, though, was that our Hannah (who I presume is American) said “your use of the word retard is offensive”.
For some reason – possibly because the American Colonies had a high percentage of religious extremists among their early, socially influential immigrants – PC has taken more root in the US than in the UK.
For example, I really do not see what is wrong in calling Red Indians ‘Red Indians’. They are neither ‘red’ nor ‘Indian’ but neither are they ‘ethnic Americans’ (the PC description). They are no more ethnic Americans than anyone else is ethnic anything. As far as I am aware, we all came from the Rift Valley and “white” and “brown” people are just watered-down, second-rate blacks…
The objection to the term ‘Red Indians’ seems to be in calling them ‘red’ whereas, I would have thought, the objection should be in calling them ‘Indians’, which they are clearly not. It’s a bit like St Petersburg being re-named Leningrad and then being re-named St Petersburg. Does it really change the city? If ‘Red Indians’ were called something incorrectly and it was used perfectly unobjectionably for years, why change it?
Words are just words.
Which brings us to the word “nigger”.
There is a centrally important dog called Nigger in 1955 movie The Dam Busters. The dog is black; the word was not felt to be offensive in Britain when the movie was made. How on earth they screen it on TV now I do not know, because the word is deemed to be unspeakably offensive. It would almost need a warning before the screening.
I once heard someone argue (I have a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that it was the unjustly vilified British comedian Bernard Manning) that finding the word ‘nigger’ offensive and the word ‘black’ inoffensive is ridiculous because they mean exactly the same thing and, in fact, ‘nigger’ has a more noble historical lineage.
When and why did ‘nigger’ suddenly become offensive? It seems to have been re-defined as racist because mindless racist wankers in the Southern states of the US used it as a term of abuse. But it was not widely used elsewhere as a term of abuse, just as a word. Nigger = black = nigger.
The (Jewish) American comedian Lewis Schaffer, who grew up in New York, says that, in his neighbourhood (or, if you insist, his neighborhood), he never heard the word “nigger” used at all when he was growing up – it was just never used by the Jews he knew. They said “schwarz” (ie black). When (as a child) he first realised ‘nigger’ was a ‘banned’ word – a ‘shocking’ word – he had an overwhelming urge to run down the street shouting it out repeatedly (though he did not). Not as a term of abuse to black people, but just because he had suddenly found a word which could potentially shock adults. He wanted to use a ‘bad’ word; he did not have racist thoughts.
It is not my original thought, but what on earth is the logic in ‘nigger’ being an unsspeakable word for so-called ‘white’ people to say when it is an often perfectly unobjectionable word for ‘blacks’ to say? This bizarre piece of double-think seems to me to be in itself an example of racial prejudice.
I think the term ‘black’ is almost more offensive than ‘nigger’ because it is a ridiculous word.
I have a friend of Indian (‘proper’ Indian, not Red Indian) origin who finds it ridiculous that she can sometimes be classified as black. She quite rightly insists she is not black, she is a brown colour – and a very lovely brown colour. Or, as Americans would claim, color. Very few of even the directly-African-origined people classified as ‘black’ in the US and UK are actually ‘black’. They are variations on brown.
I went to college with someone from Sierra Leone. He was black. President Obama is not black. Not even remotely. I saw him on TV yesterday standing next to President Sarkozy of France. Their skin looked almost the same colour.
Yet President Obama – visibly not a black-skinned person – is called ‘black’ as a term of respect.
With Red Indians, on the other hand, ‘red’ is racially unacceptable.
Words are words and are often what they are through historical accident.
Words do not break bones; sticks and stones do that. Words, in themselves, are not insulting; the intention of the people saying them may be.
If the word ‘spastic’ is said to be unacceptable because it was sometimes hurled at people as a term of abuse, why change the word? Why not mount campaigns to change people’s perception? People’s perceptions are to blame; changing the word changes nothing.
If you do not use the word, the people who use the word will still have the same unacceptable misconceived wankiness in their brain. Changing the word is trying to mask symptoms. It does not cure the disease.
It is how you treat people that is important and what you think which is important.
Words are just words.
If gay people are said to be 10% of the population then, mathematically, in a reasoned argument, you could say they are ‘freaks’ although, personally, I think 10% is a bit too high to be called freaks.
If a definable group of people – let us say members of Mensa – are less than 2% of the population in a way that can be defined by allegedly scientific testing, then they are freaks.
‘Mental retardation’ was a phrase which was long used at the other end of the testing spectrum. The phrase, I suspect, was used because it was more acceptable than previously-used terms and was therefore thought-of as being kinder and less offensive. It is now pretty-much non-PC (which is what I implied in my previous blog). But why?
My new Twitter chum Hannah objected to me using the (as I implied) outdated term “mental retard”. She said she objected to me “calling vulnerable people freaks”.
I would argue that her use of the term “vulnerable people” could be considered appallingly demeaning.
A dwarf is a dwarf. A midget is a midget.
A word is a word.
A Jew is a Jew.
A Scotsman is a Scotsman.
Just because people have, in the past, hurled the word “Jew!” at people in an attempt to be offensive, does not mean Jews should now be called ethnic Eastern Mediterraneans. The fault is in the racist wankers. Changing the word does not make any difference.