Like many people reading the news, I am rather baffled at the new wave of apparent offense caused by another perfectly innocent use of a word that has simply gone out of fashion. Benedict Cumberbatch accidentally used the word ‘coloured’ when referring to a black person. He intended no offense and it was presumably a simple slip of the tongue based on his early education on good manners. People use all sorts of words and grammar when speaking that they would filter, rearrange or translate when writing.
When I was young in 1970s Belfast, ‘black’ was considered impolite and ‘coloured’ was considered more respectful. Fashion has changed and ‘black’ is the current polite word in the UK, I think. People adapt and learn eventually, but occasional accidental reversion to earlier terminology in real time interactions ought to be accepted by reasonable people. But it isn’t as simple as that.
The US-based civil rights organisation the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People evidently still uses the word ‘colored’. It is initially hard to understand why an organisation that represents black people would use a word in their actual title that is actually considered offensive elsewhere, in the internet age. There is a feasible explanation though, thanks to Aisha (@aisha_rsh) for the link: http://www.quora.com/Why-does-the-NAACP-still-use-Colored-People-in-the-organizations-name-Like-Negro-that-term-appears-to-be-outdated-Some-even-find-it-offensive
That’s fine, I sort of understand, but even so, it does seem that alleged hurt feelings are somewhat exaggerated. Those who claim to be offended by it are presumably not offended when the largest black rights organisation uses it, even if for reasons of honoring tradition. If it is only offensive when spoken by a non-black such as Cumberbatch, then that is a form of mild racism against whites. Racism is bad in either direction. We should all have the same rules and have equal access to the same vocabulary. I’m all for full and true equality, but against any group claiming superiority, even via alleged victim-hood and deliberate offense-taking. In any case, my parents taught me about sticks and stones and the lesson stuck well. I’ve experienced plenty of name-calling but never lost any sleep over it.
People can be hurt by words, and when that hurt is genuine, then apologies are justified and Cumberbatch has apologized for any offence he caused. However, let’s also remember that taking offense when no offense is intended can be and often is an offensive act. It can be a form of aggression, of putting down the other while putting oneself on a pedestal. In this case, some of the comment certainly falls in that category.
However, after a 400 word intro, I am becoming aware I am drifting off my intended point. Which is:
At the moment, we are seeing worldwide a growing conflict between sub-communities. With too much genuine misery and genuine discrimination and genuine oppression in the world, there is also a great deal of parallel abuse of those good people who want to stop it and ensure a fairer world for all. It is one thing to be freed from oppression and exploitation; it is quite another to use someone else’s oppression to advantage yourself. Having genuine victims in a community does not justify a free pass for that entire community any more than prejudice is justified against an entire community because of the actions of a few.
However, that seems to be the road we have been travelling. In trying to fight prejudice, sometimes we end up with privileged treatment for certain social groups. A small temporary overshoot is fine, as long as a level playing field eventually comes. The problem is when overshoot and privilege produces lasting barriers. When special treatment is available, it inevitably becomes a source of tribal competition and conflict and reinforces barriers instead of removing them.
If people have to stick to special vocabulary on pain of losing their career, if they are forced to censor everything they say or write or do to avoid causing offence to the easily or intentionally or even professionally offended or attracting criticism from sanctimonious busybodies or even the police, then instead of tribal boundaries being wiped away and social cohesion and inclusion improving, communication between groups and between individuals drops, barriers grow and are reinforced, stresses rise, and social inclusion drops and loneliness increases.
Protection of the disadvantaged is a noble cause, but it must be restricted to those that are actually disadvantaged and it must stop once protection is effective. If it is allowed to increase beyond equality or extend to entire social groups, or if privilege remains permanent, then it causes division and reverse oppression.
This matters. Tribalism is a big problem. Loneliness is a massive social problem. People need to communicate, they need friends. If they don’t feel free to speak due to (possibly exaggerated) fear of possible condemnation, then they may self-censor, keep their thoughts to themselves, restrict their social activities, withdraw and become isolated and lonely. That is not a healthy trend.
Censorship is increasing rapidly. Surveillance is increasing rapidly too, especially including social surveillance in media such as twitter and Facebook by both police and random busybodies. Quality of relationships online is generally lower than face to face relationships, and loneliness is already increasing. Adding to that will make it worse and worse.
Left unaddressed, this problem looks set to worsen. Barriers are growing, and being locked in place, then cameras and microphones are being added to the barriers. Meanwhile, penalties are increasing. A single word that is merely out of date and otherwise innocently used can destroy a career.
All nice people want a nice world where everyone is treated fairly and oppression has vanished. We should avoid offending people unnecessarily, but we must also be forgiving when no offence is intended or a word is no more than an innocent slip of the tongue. We need to be far better at dealing with specific instances of disadvantage or oppression and far less willing to grant long-term privileges to entire social groups. And most of all, we need to restore true freedom of speech or suffer some pretty big social problems.
Make no mistake. The busybodies and the deliberately offended are the new Spanish Inquisition. We really don’t want them in charge.