Language and racism

by Tom Albrighton 23 October 2009 Uncategorised

Recently, the UK has been plunged into controversy (in some quarters, anyway) over whether the use of the word ‘paki’ by Strictly Come Dancing contestant Anton Du Beke was offensive or not.

On one side, the (largely conservative) nay-sayers argue that ‘paki’ is simply short for ‘Pakistani’, and hence a purely descriptive term, like ‘Brit’. How could anyone be offended by an affectionate term for their own nationality or origin? It’s political correctness gone mad!

Liberals point out that the term ‘paki’ is much more than that – a divisive, culturally loaded term with profoundly offensive connotations and clear overtones of contempt. Applied indiscriminately by whites to people of colour from the playground to the workplace, it has caused decades of hurt and offence, often accompanied by violence and intimidation. 

Much debate has focused on whether Du Beke is ‘really racist’, or whether he ‘really meant’ what he said. We can never know another’s state of mind except through language (spoken or otherwise), and speculation is fruitless. Most likely, this was a thoughtless comment, rather than malice.

But intention is a complete red herring. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so meaning is the ear of the listener. The meaning of a word, or a text, is defined by its context: the culture, values and linguistic conventions around it. As NLP teaches us, ‘the meaning of a communication is the response that you get’. The same word can have very different meanings depending on how, when, where and by whom it is used.

So the real point is whether people were offended. I don’t know any Pakistanis, so I can’t ask them. But the much-decried white liberal hand-wringing over this issue is real too, if arguably less important. If you call my mother a ‘fat cow’, I will be offended on her behalf. Who can say what types of offence are legitimate, and which are not?

Conservatives would no doubt argue that their views are legitimate too, and they’re not offended by ‘paki’, so what’s the problem? In the end, it comes down to motives and values. Why would you want to use language with the clear potential to offend and inflame hatred? ‘On principle’, perhaps, but the real reason can only be to voice racist sentiments in a disingenuous way.

But in the end, throwing around abstract terms like ‘racist’ is less important than people’s feelings in the here-and-now. We all have to get along. What critics scornfully term ‘political correctness’ is simply what used to be called ‘being polite’.

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