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The Politics of Taboo Words

sunTwo currently hot news items in Britain involve public figures using controversial language with political consequences. The Chronicle follows strict New York Times style rules about vulgarity, so I must use caution in giving some of the details about the cases I want to contrast.

The first concerns a radio DJ who made the mistake of playing the wrong version of a song: a 1932 recording with lyrics containing a word that today is regarded as an offensive racial slur (though in 1932 it wasn’t). One listener complained.

The second involves a powerful executive in a major organization (with a mandate that includes reducing sex discrimination) whose emails (now publicized by a newspaper) contain sexist insults to women in general and attacks on one female employee in particular.

Which of the two men deserves to find his job in jeopardy?

To me this seems an easy call. The sexist executive should not be holding power in an organization with both female employees and equal-opportunity responsibilities. The DJ might be advised to give a brief on-air apology to anyone offended, but what happened is surely forgivable.

But in the toxic brew created by Britain’s scandal-hunting newspaper practices interacting with modern politically correct attitudes, the other result seems to be occurring.

David Lowe, veteran host of a mid-20th-century popular-music show on BBC Radio Devon, has actually lost his job over playing a happy little ditty about sunny weather in its original 1932 version by Bert Ambrose and His Orchestra.

“The sun has got his hat on, hip-hip-hip-hooray,” says the first verse. “The sun has got his hat on and he’s coming out today.” But the second verse is today unprintable. A 1971 version by Jonathan King (under the name “Nemo”) changed it to this:

He’s been tanning Negroes out in Timbuktu
Now he’s coming back to do the same to you.

But Ralph Butler’s original lyrics didn’t say “Negroes”; instead what we now awkwardly refer to as the N-word was used. And although Lowe had never noticed it, that’s what Ambrose’s vocalist Sam Browne sang. (We should not be  surprised: in Britain in the 1930s, the word, rather like the synonymous darkie, was inoffensive and socially acceptable. Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians had a different title when first published in Britain in 1939, and its use of the N-word, echoing a 19th-century song, was not thought shocking.)

Lowe’s show was actually prerecorded, and under BBC regulations, someone on the management staff was supposed to listen to it and approve it before it went out. They failed to do that, despite a reminder from Lowe, and yet no one in the BBC has accepted any blame. When the lone complaint came in, the BBC told Lowe he should resign, and he did.

The second story involves Richard Scudamore, CEO of a key English professional soccer organization, the Premier League. A former assistant harvested from his private email a crop of sexist remarks, and the Sunday Mirror publicized them.

Scudamore warned a colleague that “female irrationality increases exponentially” with family size; told a colleague to keep a certain female staff member “off your shaft”; repeated crude sexual jokes; made no objection to a lawyer colleague referring to women in general as gash (a crude British slang term for girls regarded as a commodity); and so on.

It’s relevant here that Scudamore’s job involves working with the Football Association and Sports England to promote a new program of soccer for women and girls that will spend more than $4-million over two years. He says the Premier League aims to be at “the leading edge” of the “equality agenda.” So it really matters if he privately holds women in contempt (and lets male but not female colleagues know it).

The famously sexist English soccer industry does not need a leader like Scudamore at a time when it is attempting to facilitate professional participation by women. He should go. Not simply because of uttering vulgarisms like “gash,” but because it is clear that he is genuinely contemptuous of women.

But he won’t go. Scudamore has admitted to “an error of judgment that I will not make again” (he will doubtless change the password on his personal email account), but there are no signs yet of disciplinary action by the Premier League. At the time of writing (the weekend of May 17–18) there is a growing media hubbub but he is still (at worst) bravely “fighting to keep his job.”

So a 68-year-old DJ (paid $160 per week) has lost his job over an 80-year-old recording containing an unnoticed word which he never uttered; while a 54-year-old executive, whose utterance of seriously sexist remarks is uncontested, continues to hold what is probably the most influential position in English soccer (at around $40,000 per week).

The unconcealed delight of British newspapers in who-said-a-naughty-word stories signals no serious antiracist or antisexist commitment. Promoting moral panic over taboo race and sex words is not political action. It distracts everyone from real issues like fairness toward women and minorities in our society.

It would be good to see a little more linguistic sophistication among drafters of material like FCC regulations, obscenity laws, and university hate speech codes.

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