Sunday, 11 October 2009

It's political correctness gone mad

I don’t watch Strictly Come Dancing because I have better things to do, like gouge my eyes out with shards of glass. If I did watch Strictly Come Dancing I would probably have been filled with indignation at the recent ‘racist’ comments uttered by Anton Du Beke, who said his dancing partner looked like a ‘paki’ after she had had some spray tan put on. Instead I am filled with scorn for the media explosion that this throw-away comment has caused.

Du Beke has of course apologised unreservedly and said that his comments were not intended to be offensive. His partner, Laila Rouass has accepted the apology. So now we can move on, yes? No? Apparently we now have to have a debate about what is appropriate to say on TV and whether we should use words which could potentially be offensive so some people.

Of course this is not one issue but two; what is appropriate for television and what language it is appropriate for us to use in our day to day lives. Let me put my cards on the table and say that I don’t think Du Beke’s comments were appropriate. He is a figure in the public eye, watched by millions countrywide. He should not be using sensitive language like ‘paki’. While he made the comment in jest, it is a word which has many unpleasant connotations. In the public eye a comments which is supposed to be interpreted as a joke made between two friends are taken out of context. When the camera start rolling nothing you say or do is private, which is what makes reality TV such terrible viewing.

This is not to say that offensive words should not be used on TV; most comedy shows would lose all their material for a start. But Strictly Come Dancing and other show like it are meant to be light, family entertainment, they are not meant to be scandalous or racy. Bruce Forsyth, the presenter of the show, defended Du Beke’s comments, saying that people should have a ‘sense of humour’ about these things. The problem is that Du Beke’s comments weren’t even funny; it’s the kind of crass, immature comment I would expect from a 5 year old.

Which doesn’t lead me on at all well to the second and most interesting issue; what language is appropriate in our personal lives? In a multicultural world in which awareness of different social, racial and national groups is greater than at any point in history surely we should watch what we say? Well that goes without saying, but that does not mean that we should remove words like ‘paki’ from our lives. What we have to be careful of is context and intent.

Of course comments specifically intended to be offensive to a certain racial or social group, or indeed any individual, are inappropriate and never justified. Similarly a throw away comment which may not be intended to be offensive, but is taken to be offensive is inappropriate and we must be careful of what we say. There is such thing however as offensisensitivity (actually that word is made up). Some comments are not supposed to be taken to be offensive and people who interpret throwaway comments made in jest as racism need to get their heads out of their backsides. I think what Forsyth means when he said ‘we need to have a sense of humour’ is that we need to stop getting offended at comments which are not supposed to be offensive and are not even potentially offensive to us. While he may have been wrong regarding the Du Beke issue, he is right that people need to stop being offended on behalf of other people. I doubt very much that many Pakistanis were all that offended by Du Beke’s comments, and yet a several hundred people complained about it. I would bet that most of these people were not from Pakistan.

Essentially what I’m trying to say is that we need to understand that most of the time, people get offended in contexts where comments were meant as jokes. The thing is, when we joke about racism, we are acknowledging that it is wrong and indeed that it is ridiculous. By trivialising racism it is made to look even more ridiculous and hence be discredited. Now I very much doubt Du Beke had this in mind, but that’s not the point. The point is that when people get indignant about throw away comments, it puts them closer to a par with actual racism, doing nothing to solve the problem, simply muddying the water.

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