It’s not what you say – it’s how you say it

“This is a politically correct item from The Guardian…: ‘I was angered that [a reporter] found it necessary to mention that an assailant was black. The mention of colour in connection with crime is something I have come to expect from tabloids, not quality newspapers.”

“The Guardian replies: ”Black cab driver’ referred to the fact that the colour of the cab was black.'”

The above is a quote from The News Quiz, the humorous BBC Radio 4 panel show, c.1992. While The Guardian was correct in its use of language, on that occasion, it did give rise to misinterpretation and therefore the article could have been written in a clearer way.

I mention it because in the last few days we have been blessed – if that’s the word – with outbursts from two more public bodies that were similarly unwise.

The first public body I’d like to mention belongs to Diane Abbott MP who, as is fairly well-documented by now, had to apologise for any offence caused by comments she made on Twitter, after claims were made that they were racist.

In response to journalist Bim Adewunmi, who complained about the use of the terms “the black community” and “black community leaders” in the media after the Stephen Lawrence murder trial, she tweeted: “White people love playing ‘divide & rule’.”

Diane was making a valid point but in a clumsy way. There really is no reason to define any community by the ethnicity, or dominant religion, supermarket preference or whatever, of the people who live in it. Generally speaking, these places already have names attached to them.

Years ago, when I was still working in Bristol, I was asked to attend a public meeting in St Paul’s. As I recall, it referred to a violent attack on a member of the community there by someone from elsewhere, who had not yet been brought to justice.

I was very nervous about going because racial tensions were quite high as a result of this case – and my anxiety was heightened when I arrived, and found that the only other white face, in a room filled with more than 100 people, was on the clock.

I need not have concerned myself at all. I could not have been made more welcome; everybody there was delighted that I had come to give publicity to their concerns. I may even have stayed behind for a while after the meeting, for a cup of tea, a biscuit, and a bit more background information, I can’t remember for sure.

Did I say anything about being in a ‘black’ community in my article? Not at all. The question of the attack being racially motivated was an issue at the time, but there was no need to blow it out of proportion by saying anything that could suggest this was about an entire ‘black’ community setting itself against ‘white’ people. That would have been absurd.

So I sympathise with Diane Abbott’s intention in agreeing that there was no need for the colour of the community leaders to be mentioned. Unfortunately, she let her typing finger run away with her and negated the very point she was trying to make.

Contrast that with a certain Mr Cameron – who appears to be the Prime Minister – and his deliberate, disparaging reference to people with Tourettes Syndrome.

In an interview (published in the Telegraph, if I recall correctly), Mr Cameron was quoted as saying that facing Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, during Prime Minister’s Questions is “like having someone with Tourette’s sitting opposite you”.

What an insensitive thing for a man in his position to say!

And how typical of the government’s appalling attitude to people with disabilities of any kind – including Tourettes. I have already written several articles on this blog, referring to some of these casually dehumanising policies, and linking to others.

Mr Cameron has drawn much flack for his jibe – and rightly so – but, unlike Diane Abbott, he hasn’t been asked to resign as a result. But his crime is worse, in my opinion.

He was deliberately drawing a comparison between a leading Opposition Member of Parliament and people with a debilitating and humiliating condition that was intended to belittle that man.

I think we can all be certain that he wasn’t asking anyone to sympathise Mr Balls for living with a condition that means he has motor tics that seriously limit his mobility, or makes him punch himself in the head repeatedly, or that he “shouts ‘biscuit’ 16 times every waking minute of the day, as I do?” (according to Jess Thom’s recent Guardian comment).

No, he was drawing on the misconception that everyone with Tourette’s is incoherent and swears all the time, and he wanted people to look down on Mr Balls – and therefore on people with Tourette’s.

This is vile behaviour, especially from a man whose own son was disabled until his tragic death in 2009, at the age of six. Mr Cameron should have known better.

“I was speaking off the cuff, and if I offended anyone of course I am very sorry about that. That wasn’t my intention at all,” Cameron told BBC television on Sunday.

I’m sorry too. Because, as apologies go, that just isn’t good enough. We have a right to expect more from our national leaders.

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1 thought on “It’s not what you say – it’s how you say it

  1. Mike Sivier

    A friend of mine has contacted me to suggest I’m being a bit soft on Diane Abbott in this article. Just for clarity: she’s not getting a free pass from me. What she said was silly, and she did deserve to be put right about it. The article aims to highlight the differences in intention between the Abbott gaffe and that by Cameron.

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