Friday 13 March 2015

I’m sorry if you think I offended you...

For those of you living without television there is a hoo-ha, or should that be a “fracas”, going on about Jeremy Clarkson, the main presenter of a television show about cars called “Top Gear”.  He allegedly had a “fracas” with a member of the staff and has been suspended by the BBC and the remaining shows cancelled. We wait to hear the outcome – if you want to know about his history put his name into google and you will get 42,500,000 results in 0.25 seconds.

At the time of writing over 750,000 people have signed a petition to have him reinstated. His show is hugely profitable for the BBC and is sold around the world. He is very talented, very funny and, at times, quite offensive. For me the offensiveness outweighed the rest a while back and I no longer watch the show.

It may be regrettable but we all find someone else’s discomfort funny at times. Otherwise we would not laugh at someone slipping on a banana skin – real or metaphorical - not play practical jokes or laugh at them.  As someone who was bullied at primary school I find these things less funny than most – but when does this “jokiness” cross over into bullying, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism etc.  When someone said to me that his family called a Jaguar car a “Jew’s canoe” is that funny or a racist slur?

Then there are apologies: when is an apology not an apology?  The title of this blog is an example. You may not have thought (!) what you said was offensive but I was offended. You either say, “I am sorry I offended you” or shut up. 

Last year John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, criticised MPs for being “sexist, snobbish, yobbish” at Prime Minister’s Questions. This didn’t stop him from intervening when a female Government Minister was answering her 14th question on mental health saying, “I am reminded of the feeling when one thinks the washing machine will stop — but it does not!” In the scheme of things this is not the most offensive thing I have heard but would he have interjected in this way had a man been speaking? 

His apology was also somewhat hedged - “If I caused offence by what I said, I am very happy to apologise to that Member… It was an off the cuff remark, and may well have been a foolish one, and I apologise for it.”

Shall I rephrase for you Mr Bercow:  “If I caused offence by what I said I apologise to that member. It was a foolish off the cuff remark and I apologise.”

Tuesday 10 March 2015

What is racism?

There has been much in the press recently about racism and particularly “political correctness” which appears to have prevented horrendous cases of child abuse being properly dealt with.

Trevor Phillips, the former Head of the Race and Equality Commission, said in an article in the Daily Mail that “we were wrong to try and ban racism out of existence ..... campaigners like me seriously believed that if we could prevent people expressing prejudiced ideas then eventually they would stop thinking them....... only a willingness to talk more openly about race, despite risk of causing offence, will help those in need.”

I welcome these comments. You cannot control people’s thoughts – I hope that you can change their minds and modify their behaviour but when does comment become racism?  Is it comment when someone is suspected of fraud that he is a “Jewish businessman” when other suspects are not identified as a Catholic/Methodist/Presbyterian etc.  If child abuse in a particular area is perpetrated mainly by one religious/ethnic group – is that relevant/significant? 

We are comfortable with “people like us” and there is nothing wrong with that in our immediate circles but we absolutely need to get on with people who are not like us – whether it is because of race, religion, nationality or even education and this has to be taught, experienced and practised.  The more diverse our groups are the more creative we will be.

A friend wrote on Facebook about a racist cabbie he encountered who said he isn't racist because he 'only has a problem with Polish and Bangladeshi cab drivers’.  This reminded me when I came to London in the late 1960s, as white South Africans we were vilified, verbally abused and even spat at – by white people. No one asked why we had left or why we were here.
On the other hand there were people who, when they found out we were white South Africans, made really vile racist comments and were surprised that we were offended. 

As it was International Women’s Day I should point out that prejudice isn’t only confined to race and religion. There is a large population group – too large to be called a minority – that is discriminated against and not sufficiently represented.  They are called women. I quote from the House of Commons note published on International Women’s Day.

“In the UK, on average, women working full-time earn 9.5% less than men. Although women make up 51% of the population in the UK, only 23% of MPs, 25% of judges and 21% FTSE 100 company directors are female.”

We await the results of the election in May – not holding my breath.