Catch a Tiger by the Toe

Last week Donald Sterling, former owner of the LA Clippers Basketball team was banned for life from the sport and given a $2.5m fine from the US National Basketball Association over his rather overt racist remarks.

The arguments against this banning, as always, usually focus around having the ‘right to say’ what ever you want to say. The First Amendment to the US Constitution gives its citizens the right to free speech. This same right-to-say-whatever argument was used to support Phil Robertson – head of a Christian family who’s reality show ‘Duck Dynasty’ appeared on A & E network. The network suspended Mr. Roberson over his anti-gay remarks. Phil has the right to say what he wants! were the argument’s against A & E’s decision. Free speech, democracy, free speech! They are right about that – Phil does have the right to say whatever he wants, but he doesn’t have the right to not having any consequences for what he says.

In reality suspending either of these gentlemen has nothing at all to do with the right to free speech. Both of these men said what they said. They were free to say it. Were they thrown in the gulag? No. Were they drummed out of the brownies? Yes. But this is not an impediment to free speech, it is a consequence of using that right. The right to free speech doesn’t say you can say any stupid thing you want and no one is going to react to it.

Just as these gentlemen have the right to free-speech, the establishments these gentlemen represent have the right to fire them; it is really as simple as that. Using ‘hate speech’ to illicit violence being a separate issue, being racist or homophobic is your right in a Democratic country, but also your employers have a right to fire you. Both of these gentlemen have been sanctioned for their opinions, because their employers – quite rightly – don’t want to be affiliated with such overt racism or homophobia.

Meanwhile back in Britain, there is Jeremy Clarkson. Mr Clarkson who seems to be able to say whatever he wants in terms of racist comments and has no sanction. The BBC has given him “a final warning”, saying he will be fired ‘next time’ but given Clarkson’s history it doesn’t seem likely that the BBC will ever deem him offensive enough to be sanctioned. I’d really hate to see how much further he’d have to go. Perhaps arguably, Clarkson’s slurs are more covert compared with Phil Robertson or Donald Sterling, so therefore more difficult to really call racism. And after all, Clarkson always seems to have a ready apology/non-apology/I-didn’t-really-mean-it-like-that excuse for his thinly-veiled ‘casual racism’. Clarkson has spelled this all out for us, he professes to be merely confused about current culture according to Tim Adams writing for The Guardian – quoting Clarkson:

‘The N-word’ is a good case in point,” Clarkson went on. “When I was growing up it was no more shocking than ‘cauliflower’. You didn’t see Bill Grundy being escorted from Broadcasting House [for saying ‘fuck’ on air] because you were watching Alf Garnett on the other side, roaring with laughter as he peppered the screen with his racist abuse. And yet now, 30 years later, ‘the n-word’ has gone. In fact, it is just about the only word I simply would not let my children use…”

(I have replaced the original quote with ‘the n-word’ as that word is really offensive to me so I don’t want to repeat it here)

What’s the rub? Clarkson said this in 2005 – seven years prior to his utterance in 2012 or rather prior to his trying NOT to say this word seven years later.

In defense of Clarkson or rather attacking those of us who are repulsed by the man – Marina Hyde opines that The Top Gear presenter’s mumbled outtake is not equivalent to vilifying an entire race. and seems to insinuate that any one offended by Clarkson is just being unfair to the man to take his use of the N-word in context, or as she puts it

Most of the coverage of – and an unscientific half of the reaction to – Clarkson’s mumbling of what sounded like the N-word in a Top Gear outtake has appeared to be based on the misapprehension that the only context in which to consider one of Jeremy Clarkson’s remarks is a selection of Jeremy Clarkson’s other remarks. It’s a sweet idea, but it’s not going to win any arguments.

Besides not understanding what she means by ‘an unscientific half of the reaction’ – I think she is dead wrong about this. Call me a sweetheart, but the point is that Clarkson said this WITHIN the context of the kind of slurs he is constantly making. This is actually the entire point of why so many are up in arms. The man, who is a top BBC presenter stoops to covert casual racism repeatedly and nothing happens. While it is very true that unconscious bias is more insipid and much harder to identify than overt bias, I don’t think Clarkson’s comments can be attributed to some unconscious mechanism. In fact the most offensive bit about Clarkson are his continual ‘I-didn’t-really-mean-that’ or ‘back-in-my-day-it-was-ok’ excuses. Does anyone really find this believable? Even if he IS in earnest, it is no excuse, it doesn’t make what he says OK. He’s old enough to know better.

The version of eeny meany miney moe I learned as kid was:

eeny meeny miny moe
catch a Tiger by the Toe
if he hollers let him go
eeny meeny miny moe

I didn’t even know about the other version until I was at least 30 years old – and I grew up in one of the most racists parts of the Western world. My forebearers sorted it out why can’t Jeremy Clarkson? And to the BBC’s decision to give Clarkson a mere ‘final warning’? Echoing the words of Chicago Tribune Journalist Clarence Page on a radio shock-jock not being fired over similar Clarkson-esque utterances:

I know other stations — everybody knows by now, some shock jock who lost his job for less than this, or been at least suspended for a month or two. Why does Don*, a repeat offender, keep getting away with it? I want to know.

*Don being Don Imus – a radio shock jock from the US

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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8 Responses to Catch a Tiger by the Toe

  1. cromercrox says:

    No, Sylvia, context is everything. The n-word is offensive to you, by your own admission, in a way which it won’t be to Jeremy Clarkson, or anyone else, depending on their upbringing.

    When I was growing up (probably at about the same time as Clarkson) it wasn’t regarded as polite usage – but neither was it a hanging offence.

    It’s perfectly okay, however, in the context of Scrabble – but then so are a lot of words you wouldn’t use in most casual conversation.

    One such word is JEW, which is a verb, meaning to extort or wheedle. Now, I am a Jew, and you could say I find it offensive, but, hey, it’s only a game of Scrabble. It’s the context. Other words that are allowed in Scrabble are DAGO, WOP and of course YID.

    I’m happy to use ‘Yid’ in general conversation as a kind of inverted snobbery or badge of prideb ecause I am one – in the same way, I suspect, that some African-Americans use the n-word to describe themselves and one another in opposition to white people.

    The people most likely to be offended by the word ‘Yid’ (and other such racist terms) are Guardian-reading types obsessed with political correctness, who are also those most likely to harbour antisemitic tendencies as a kind of dirty little secret (rather than wearing them overtly, as the Far-Right do.) The use of the term ‘Yid’, therefore, piques their own feelings of embarrassment and hypocrisy.

    • cromercrox says:

      I forgot to add the punchline – if you are likely to be offended by all uses of all words you find offensive, shouldn’t Scrabble be banned?

  2. yes of course context is everything – but you call yourself that – how would you feel if I called you that? the thing is Clarkson is a television presenter and he is ALWAYS doing this – it’s not just a single point issue. so it is in context, it’s in context of Jeremy Clarkson being Jeremy Clarkson … using the N-word was also normal in my mother’s generation …. she doesn’t use that word (nor have I ever heard her use that word) – she manages to control herself …

  3. Well said, Sylvia

    And there continues to be an xkcd cartoon for every occasion

  4. Mark Field says:

    That xkcd cartoon is very good, and as usual very relevant here.

    This isn’t going to win me any friends on this website, but I think you may have pre-judged the situation here. I’m going to defend Mr. Clarkson in this case. Please note that I’m I’m not trying to change your mind on this, just pointing out what I think to be true.

    Firstly some caveats: 1) The use of the word is not acceptable, and Mr. Clarkson is well aware of this. 2) I know full well there is a history of slurs here which has got him into trouble for good reason before.

    So why am I going to bat for him here and now ? Well a number of related reasons:

    Firstly, and the main point of this reply, is that this segment was never aired. It was edited out and Mr. Clarkson had a lot to do with getting this cut from the program.

    Secondly the word in question is a slur when used as a description of people of colour. Mr. Clarkson was reciting a nursery rhyme which has this word in it for historical reasons. (Yes, historical reasons describing people of colour, but the rhyme itself is now part of a broader cultural history of nursery rhymes). So what matters here is context, was this nursery rhyme applied to a person of colour, or is it being used for another purpose ? It is difficult to get hard information here, but it is my understanding that it was used in the context of randomly picking one of a list, something the rhyme has traditionally been associated with. Note: I will change my mind about a lot of this if this is not what was going on Now it may be in very poor taste to recite the rhyme in full, but we are in danger of historical revisionism if we decide the rhyme cannot ever be used.

    Finally, and I accept this is a matter of interpretation, he gets close to saying this but doesn’t – he stops himself. He really doesn’t get beyond the first syllable and The Daily Mirror had to hire an ‘aural forensic expert’ (in their own words here) to analyze the recording to determine what he may have said. That’s a long way from shouting it out and representing it as his opinion which is what he is accused of. Yes he is using a nursery rhyme with that word in it so that everyone expects him to say it, and yes he is deliberately cutting it close to the bone for comic or shock effect. But he doesn’t get that far, and that is an important distinction.

    So what we have here is a program where the editorial checks and balances have worked. In fact Mr. Clarkson is primarily responsible here for implementing those checks and balances. The only reason we are having this discussion is that the Daily Mirror got hold of something the BBC did not publish, and decided they could sell more papers by publishing the unedited version which could be made to look newsworthy by their expression of righteous indignation.

    I feel fairly strongly that you should be allowed to correct your mistakes before publishing and the editing process should not be held up as your opinion. If I write something and put it aside before publishing so that I can edit it, and I feel with hindsight during editing that parts of this work are not acceptable, I should be able to delete or amend those parts without someone else coming back, examining the edits and damning me for realizing my error. The world is a poorer place for the Daily Mirror’s actions here.

    The BBC is now in the impossible position of damned if you do and damned if you don’t about censoring Mr. Clarkson, a situation the Daily Mirror knew full well would happen when they published. If the BBC don’t censor then they appear to be condoning racism, if they do censor then they are attacking their own staff (not just Mr. Clarkson) for following the editorial guidelines they themselves have set down. The BBC in the end took the only politically available option, censor and tell everyone they take racism seriously. The Daily Mirror is effectively attacking the BBC which is about as soft a target as you can get. The BBC cannot sack Mr. Clarkson for following their own editorial guidelines.

    Top Gear is a partly a satirical show whose humour is deliberately based on stereotypes good and bad. Like many such shows, the editorial team has to walk the fine line between acceptable use, fair comment and what the general public understands is meant in humour rather than as a deliberate attack. This last point is a moving target, and it is very easy to offend people without meaning to, but without our right to express that humour we do not have a free press. Mr. Clarkson and Top Gear have crossed the line before, and have apologized for it. In this one case however, I don’t believe they did cross the line.

    I am a guest on your blog and I may well have offended you, and if so I apologize. There are many cases of real discrimination and hatred that should be pointed out, I just don’t think this is one of them. As I said at the beginning I’m not trying to change your mind, just pointing out what I think to be true.

    • You have in no way offended me! This is an excellent, well-argued, well-considered comment. You haven’t changed my mind completely, but I can see your point of view.
      Personally, what I find difficult about Clarkson is what I said in the blog – eg that he is always ‘almost’ screwing up and in a way he just sort of squeaks away with it … I think he goes too far – you don’t but that is a difference of opinion. Thanks for your comment i really enjoyed reading it and it did make me think…

  5. Mark Field says:

    Thank you for the kind reply Dr. McLain, I was worried that the reply had become a rant (which frankly it was close to becoming) which left no room for other opinions – in which case we are not having a discussion which is the entire point about the blog, and I am being rude.

    I agree that all we have is a difference of opinion. I also agree with you entirely that Mr. Clarkson seems to enjoy a status where he pushes the line beyond good taste and gets away with it – in other cases I’m much less sympathetic.

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