Jennifer O’Connell: Cumberbatch gaffe pounced upon in a world convulsed with ragegasms

Benedict Cumberbatch’s inadvertent use of the historically loaded word ‘coloured’ deserved an apology, and one duly came. But wasn’t the outrage a bit overdone?

Benedict Cumberbatch: with regard to his use of the word ‘coloured’, surely we have to allow that intention matters.  And here he was fairly blameless. Photograph: Danny Moloshok/Files/Reuters

Benedict Cumberbatch: with regard to his use of the word ‘coloured’, surely we have to allow that intention matters. And here he was fairly blameless. Photograph: Danny Moloshok/Files/Reuters

 

Benedict Cumberbatch issued an apology last week after he used the word “coloured” on US TV when talking about the lack of diversity in British cinema.

“Coloured” is a historically loaded word and is now regarded as offensive, even if it is was in popular usage not too long ago and remains in the title of the NAACP. “People of colour”, by contrast, is fine. Whether you find that confusing – and reactions online ranged from the outraged to the genuinely bewildered – isn’t the point. If a term is regarded by enough of those to whom you’re referring as hurtful, even if you don’t mean any offence, you should try to use a different one. We can all agree on that, I think.

But this is a lot simpler in theory than in practice. In his apology, Cumberbatch went on to say he was an “idiot” and a “fool”. He’s on dangerous ground here: “idiot” is also regarded in many quarters as a slur, along with the other ablest terms “insane”, “stupid”, and phrases such as “crippled by debt”.

This determination to eradicate all occasions for offence from human discourse is well-meant, but I suspect it is doomed. We are far too fond of taking offence to give it up lightly. It often feels like we are living in an age of offence, when roughly 98 per cent of the content of social media consists of people being outraged at something someone else said. There’s even a word for the satisfying spewing of bile all over the nearest screen as a reaction to some perceived slight: a “ragegasm”.

As the writer Jonathan Chait noted in a provocative essay in New York Magazine about political correctness, in many US universities “there is a campaign to eradicate microaggressions, or small social slights that might cause searing trauma.” Chait, whose piece made some valid points – even if it was widely mocked by people who took offence at his brand of privileged-white-man-whingeing – cited the example of a college drama group that recently announced it would no longer put on The Vagina Monologues because the material excludes women without vaginas.

He might have included, had he known about it, Coláiste Eoin, the Dublin secondary school that postponed a series of workshops on homophobic bullying, apparently in order to allow “both sides” of the issue to be heard.

On the face of it, the Coláiste Eoin incident appeared to have stemmed from some Father Ted-like interpretation of the notion of political correctness. Elsewhere in the world, however, the issues at stake in the clash between the right to be offended and the right to freedom of expression are far less laughable.

The Charlie Hebdo slayings united in horror voices from almost every culture and political standpoint. But much of the debate in the aftermath has centred on whether freedom of expression is absolute, or whether religion should be offered some kind of special status (something the pope has argued for, and the Irish State already provides). These days, however, the culture of offence is no longer just the preserve of the ideologies of Muslim extremists or conservative Catholics. It is also, ironically, gaining a foothold among liberal commentators, who argue for freedom of expression but are quick to silence those with whom they disagree with protestations of offence. “Check your privilege” has become the default slapdown of the competitively victimised on social media.

This is not to say that words don’t matter. They do matter, and they should be used wisely and kindly. So too do privilege and context: Cumberbatch’s gaffe was regarded as especially grievous because he is a privileged white man whose ancestors were slave owners. But if we give that much weight to context, then surely we have to allow that intention matters too. And here he was fairly blameless: he was talking about the need for greater ethnic diversity, and his apology was swift and heartfelt. “The damage is done,” he said. I hope he is wrong about that.

 

Palin comes bearing fridge magnets with folksy idioms

Let’s all pause and have a brief moment of thanks for Sarah Palin. Listening to her speech at the Republican Party’s gathering of 2016 presidential hopefuls in Iowa was like being pinned down by a mama grizzly, while Palin fired fridge magnets bearing folksy idioms straight out of the barrel of her bear-huntin’ rifle. It was all going fine, as Jon Stewart on the Daily Show said, “until her subjects stopped talking to her verbs”.

There was speculation that she might have had a glass of wine at lunch or that her teleprompter had broken down, but I think she was just whetting the public’s appetite for a show-stopping run in 2016. This was the speech that had it all, even if “it all” did not appear to be linked together by any central theme, intelligible meaning, or relationship with the conventions of English grammar. It had a “pistol-packin’, Harley-ridin’ mamma grizzly”. It had “screw the left in Hollywood”. It had “we let them tell jihadists, nuh-uh; this is our house, get the hell out”.

Towards the end of the speech, it was as though half her brain had been surgically removed and replaced by a deep-fried Mars bar. “We cut them then if we want a fired-up, unified base to get the GOP over the line to thwart the lies of the less and their politics of personal destruction; we gotta cut the candidates who don’t fit that bill of being beholden to the people,” she declared, proving beyond all doubt that meaningful sentences are for liberal elitists. You betcha.

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