Sunday, 22 November 2009


A while ago I was reprimanded on Twitter for, I think (my recall of events is a bit hazy) re-tweeting someone else's comment that the English Democrat Mayor of Doncaster was a 'nutter'. I was reminded of it this week by the news that Nick Griffin has announced his intention to stand at the next General Election in Barking.... which is simply asking for it, isn't it? It's a headline writer's dream. In fact it's so obvious that you can't actually have that much fun with it... "Nick Griffin is barking in Barking". Ho ho. Or 'facepalm' as the young people seem to say on Twitter. If anyone can do better on the barking/Barking front, please let me know.

So.... given the sensitivities over mental health issues and what the Mayor of Doncaster's son would no doubt term 'political correctness gone mad' (see earlier posts on Philip Davies MP, for it is he), but which the more englightened amongst us would see as a desire to avoid causing offence to marginalised or vulnerable groups, is it ever OK to use the N word?

Something that is very rarely discussed by MPs in public, for obvious reasons of confidentiality, is the fact that each one of us will have at least half a dozen files on the go at any time where the constituent has serious mental health issues. I'm not talking about the harmless eccentrics here, which we all have our fair share of too, and long may they continue to write to us with their interesting perspectives on life, the universe and everything in between. I'm talking about seriously disturbed people, who can be extremely offensive, aggressive, even quite scary and potentially dangerous, and/or people who evoke a huge degree of sympathy and concern in the office. (The two not being mutually exclusive of course - you can be extremely worried about someone's mental health and wellbeing, whilst at the same time not prepared to have them come anywhere near you or your staff.)

To avoid any misunderstanding, wilful or otherwise, I can categorically state that I would not dream of describing such people as 'nutters' or 'loonies' or anything else along those lines. No matter how objectionable or unreasonable they might be, I still have a huge amount of sympathy for them, even if their behaviour makes it very difficult to do anything to help them, and I wouldn't tolerate a member of my staff making light of their problems either (not that they would).

However.... if it's wrong to use the N word in respect of people who have serious mental health problems, does that mean it's always wrong to use it? Or is it OK in reference to people like the Mayor of Doncaster, who, let's be honest, it's very difficult to discuss without resorting to such adjectives? There's nothing wrong with, for example, describing Ann Widdecombe as 'bonkers', is there? (One could argue that it's actually quite an affectionate term. I quite frequently tell one of my nephews he's bonkers, which in these days of Dizzee Rascal he probably regards as a badge of honour). But there would be something a little dodgy about describing Susan Boyle as bonkers, given that her mental health is, allegedly, somewhat fragile. And there's something a little offensive in saying about something 'that's mental!' but not, I think, in saying 'that's mad!' or 'that's crazy!' unless you're actually talking about a person whose mental health is questionable, in which case it's wrong too.

Ironically, I have just realised that Daniel Hannan is on Radio 4 as I blog... someone else who is frequently described as a fruitcake, and not in an affectionate way. So what do you think? Is this OK? Or is it offensive?


Pete said...

As with many things, context and intention, is crucial - and it's dangerous, especially for politicians, to use terms like this that can be taken out of context and used against them. So my advice would be 'don't'(I know the 6% change in the Con/Lab gap in the latest Opinion Poll projected over 6 months leaves the Cons with 1% of the vote come the Election but - yunno - just - let's not take things for granted ...)

However, the way we use and react to words can be very revealing, and often disturbing. I've been called a 'bastard' in very endearing and even complementary circumstances, but have a friend with an illegitimate son who finds the word distressing at all times. I sometimes tell a Scouse mate we should never have shown them how to use knives and forks because they're getting ideas above their station (I'm from Manchester) - but would never dream of saying anything like that to a Sikh friend of mine - why not? Occasionally I don't react when people speak to me and they ask aggressively "Are you deaf ..." - and I say "Yes, I am" (I am) and they usually come over all apologetic and embarrassed ... and so it goes.
Bloomin minefield, rich area for social research - but in your position, be PC at all times I would say.


MekQuarrie said...

I seem to recall Tony Blair's now-deceased father was once (allegedly) categorized in the 'N' folder by his own office staff. Something to do with the handwriting...