Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Sooty seconds

Comments on the previous post have persuaded me to look more closely at this issue of Prince Charles and his mate "Sooty", as it think it raises some important points.

We are told, by Mr Dhillon himself, that he enjoys his nickname, and that he is sure it is meant affectionately and that Charles is not a racist - quite the opposite in fact. What would be the grounds for going beyond that and criticising Charles anyway? The following are what i have been able to come up with.

First, perhaps Dhillon is lying when he says that he enjoys it and is not offended. We can't tell if this is true or not. I see no reason to think it is.

Second, whether Dhillon is offended or not, and Charles' intention in using the term, is irrelevant. The term and its use are objectively racist, independent from the feelings and intention of those involved. I reject this idea that racism can be separated from feeling and intent: I think it's very dangerous and deeply anti-liberal.

Third, Charles is under a duty to set an example because of his position. Dhillon's wishes and feelings, and Charles' intent, are irrelevant: the point is that the use of the term by Charles might encourage its use and racist attitudes. I don't go along with this, because this is a private matter between friends, and I believe Charles is entitled to a private life. I would take a different attitude - I think - if Charles had used the nickname in, say, a speech.

Fourth, Dhillon would have been offended if he was more aware of these issues, and that is relevant: in quasi-wanky-Marxist terms, he is acquiescing in his own oppression because of his false consciousness. I get the sense that is what jg is getting at in his or her comment below, when s/he writes: Even if Dhillon himself is okay with it, it's still not ideal, as my guess would be that he isn't accustomed to moving in the most enlightened circles. Some women are presumably 'okay' with their partners referring to them as 'the ball and chain' or whatever, but that doesn't mean it's fine. I don't like this. I don't see how we are in a position to comment on or criticise Dhillon's own views or feelings, or to suggest that he has somehow got this most personal of issues 'wrong'. To take another of jg's examples, if Spurs fans want to call themselves yids, I say good on them: it's their choice, and I can see it could be quite empowering to use the old racist term themselves.

That's it. Have I missed anything?

Next week: we enjoy the Queen Mother's newly revealed private handwritten tribute to her favourite servant (and the only black man at Clarence House) on his retirement from service, the charming "We'll miss you, Little Old Nig-Nog'.


Captain Haddock said...

Strangely enough, your cousin used to refer to any passing horse as a "nig-nog" - much to his mother's and aunt's uneasy amusement...that was, of course, until he was made aware of the socio-polical minefield he was happily tramping through in his little hob-nailed boots.
(even more strangely, I've just noticed that my word verification test for this comment is KOONY. Someone needs to have a word with blogger, I think)

Anonymous said...

But would your analysis change if the term used had been N*****? If so, what is the relevant difference between the terms?

JG said...

I agree with some of what you say here Jonny but not all of it. Agree that a private nickname is different from a speech in terms of 'example setting'.

I don't agree necessarily about the separation of feeling and intent. There's absolutely no doubt that some non-racist/non-sexist/non-anti-semitic people have in their time said things that are *objectively* racist/sexist/anti-semitic. I simply don't buy the 'it's fine as long as the person being addressed doesn't mind'. Some women tolerate the fact that their husbands beat them - that doesn't mean it's fine.

Which moves me nicely on to my next point. Depending on the circles in which you move, part of the world in which you live etc, different things are considered acceptable/unacceptable. For example, women who work in very macho working environments are probably accustomed to being addressed/talked about in a certain way to the point where they get so used to it that they think it's absolutely fine. At sixth form/university, loads of boys/men I was mates with standardly referred to women as 'birds'. This definitely didn't bother or offend me at the time, but I now see that it's not completely fine, and I would be shocked now if in a work meeting, our managing director referred to female employees as such. This is kind of the point I was making about Sooty in the polo club; if those are the circles he moves in, and the kinds of nicknames he's used to, and they're genuinely meant 'affectionately' (which I believe they might be in this case) then why would he necessarily object?

Just to clarify, as I know you're not fond of unnecessary authoritarianism (and neither am I) I'm NOT saying that Prince Charles should be formally disciplined, arrested, considered a pariah or anything like that. I just think it would be better if he didn't call his black mates Sooty. And I think it's particularly unfortunate in the wake of the Harry palaver, if the royals are trying to prove they're tolerant, liberal folk.

(And my point about yids was that it was okay because it was self-referential. I don't think it would be okay if that term had been thought up and then directed at Spurs by Chelsea fans.)

Jonny Mac said...

Anon - very good point, which I mentioned in a comment below. I think the outcome of my analysis would be different, yes. The N-word is so grossly offensive, and so clearly linked to racism, that (a) it would be very hard to believe that Dhillon, a bright wealthy Asian man, wouldn't find it offensive and (b) my privacy point would be much weaker, in that it would be so shocking that it would be inevitable that it would come out, and inevitable that genuine offence would be caused thereby simply by the fact the term was used. I don't think this means my analysis re 'Sooty' is wrong.

JG - think we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. I don't buy your analogy with wife-beating: tolerating domestic violence is, for me, simply not comparable with the use of nicknames. And I don't see how we can say that a woman who works in a blokey environment and is called eg "darlin'" is "wrong" to accept that if she genuinely enjoys the banter with her work colleagues (perhaps giving as good as she gets). Who are we to say that banter is not acceptable? To get there, it seems to me, you have to build in assumptions - eg she is in a less powerful position, she couldn't get it to change even if she wanted to, it will somehow affect other women - that strike me as unwarranted and dangerously close to be being patronising. Which takes me back to my original comment on SRTRC's intervention in Sootygate.

JG said...

Very amusing Sootygate coda above.

I wasn't saying domestic violence was the same or as bad as 'name-calling': it was just an analogy to show that just because the person on the receiving end of an insult says something is 'okay', doesn't necessarily mean it is. From your comment above, you obviously agree with this when applied to the 'n-word'. I think the waters have been muddied here somewhat by the fact that Sooty is a loveable children's TV character. But in this instance, it's still a comment on the colour of someone's skin.

Re my 'woman in the workplace example' - it's obviously difficult to argue about this based on an invented 'workplace', though I do have a few in mind. But the 'assumptions' you talk about building in, I would argue are almost always the case in working environments where sexist so-called banter is tolerated. i.e. it will be a workplace dominated by men, where women get paid less, it's very difficult for them to change that, if they do object to sexist 'banter' (and I wouldn't say use of the word 'darling' in itself was necessarily sexist) they are probably accused of being humourless. What did this have to do with Sooty? Ah yes. I was just wondering whether amongst Prince Charles's polo club set, saying 'Please don't call me Sooty, it's offensive' would be received with quite the same understanding as it would at a North London dinner party.

Personally I think Sue always set an excellent example by being the only character on the show who spoke proper good English whilst Sooty was mute and Sweep squeaked. An excellent feminist icon.

[Enough Sooty and feminism - Ed.]

JG said...

p.s. Your point about 'affecting other women' is the key one. It absolutely affects all women if it's common practice for them to be referred to as 'birds' in certain professional settings. And some might feel it sets the cause of anti-racism back some way if it's considered fine for people to call their black mates 'Sooty'.

[Now really enough Sooty - Ed.]

dNo said...

Oh for God's sake, first i cant call Mehmet a Turk and Indians monkeys, and now you say i cant even beat my wife any more.
What the hell else are you bloody fascists going to take away from me next? If you even think of touching the baby in the garage i swear i will go mental... (or is that offending mentally ill people?)

BJ said...

dNo, I suspect Jonny would agree that you're still allowed to poke fun at "gingers". N***** may be beyond the pale on JMP, Sooty's clearly a grey area and birds are not black and white, but we can all have a good laugh about ginger pubes. Oh yes, don't think I didn't spot that. Someone called me a "ginger" once - on the tube. (I wouldn't haven't minded, but I'm clearly not one.)

dNo said...

The ultimate test of any man is to grow a beard. And i think you will find that were JM to do that, there would be more than one little ginger hair in there. Hence his attitude of lets kick the gingers and no one will think I'm one... I just have cats named after Indians... He hasnt mentioned his gerbil, Ernest Oswald yet...

dNo said...

Also...probably not important but did you notice that ginger is an anagram of nigger?
Like "Chesney Hawkes" is "he wanks cheesy..."