Monday, 15 October 2012

"Honour" killing, the N-word and the power of language

"I have a dream!"

"I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

"A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle."

There are three famous quotes from three different people - and they all illustrate the power of words. Sometimes political correctness truly has gone mad when it comes to word use - such as the insistence by some feminists that "women" should be spelled as "wimmin" or "womyn" to remove the pesky "men" word from it all. This is silly, counter-productive and a moronic distraction from real issues that affect real women's lives. Do these same women also want to remove the "men" from "menstruation" (minstruation? mehnstruation?) while they're at it?

But there are other times when word use is important and powerful.

When it comes to discussing "honour" killing, for example, it is important to constantly hammer home the point that there is nothing honourable about such vile murders. That is why I always put inverted commas around "honour" or refer to them as "so-called 'honour' killings". It is a clunky and inelegant use of language and punctuation - but it is important that the jarring inverted commas remain so they fly into the reader's eye like cinders*. It makes the reader pause and think about the real horror of an "honour" killing, to realise that "defending honour" is no defence at all for these sexist, hateful, brutal murders that are based on a warped notion of what honour really means. "Honour" killings can never be defended or explained away by "cultural differences". Not here in Britain, not in any country.

Then there is the conundrum of racist language. For years, Australian cricket commentators thought nothing of cheerfully braying such tripe as: "The Pakis won the toss and have elected to bat!" on national television whenever Pakistan played my home country. They seemed to think it was exactly the same as referring to Australians as "Aussies". For years, "Paki" was trotted out by the embarrassing, boorish commentators, with what seemed to be blissful ignorance of the hurt that word has caused many people.

However, the flipside is that a total censorship of such language has the potential to stifle creativity and hinder opportunities to make important social comment through such mediums as film and literature. Take the latest idiocy from the world's most overrated actress, Nicole Kidman. Given she has the acting range of a slightly animated department store mannequin, her career has always baffled me. But I digress...

In her latest movie The Paperboy, she plays a toxic character, a salacious, rapacious redneck. Despite this, she refused to use the word "nigger" because she didn't think it was appropriate to her character. Except that there are plenty of instances in movies depicting race relations where an actor acting in a racist manner, including using racist language, brings home just how ugly and vile racism is. It would seem that Kidman is worried cinema-goers might mistake her character being racist for her being racist. Yes, and everyone who watched Monster left the cinema thinking Charlize Theron is a serial killer...

May we choose our words wisely. May we not stifle creativity and free speech. May we appreciate the power of language for good and evil. And may commonsense prevail when we make these linguistic choices.

* Thank you to American writer Florence King for that fabulous turn of phrase. I wish I could claim it as my own.

Image courtesy of


  1. I always get slightly embarrassed when Pakistani colleagues or friends refer to themselves as 'Pakis'.

  2. It's somewhat tangential to the topic, but I'd defend the usage of 'Paki' in Australia, by Australians, talking to other Australians. This is the land in which no noun is permitted, by law, to exceed two syllables. When you are having a barbie in the arvo with some Kiwis, Aussies and Pommies, sucking down some coldies and chowing down on some sangers, it'd be overly formal to invite some Pakistanis. It'd simply be rude not to call them Pakis following the same grammatical rules as the way you refer to your mates Watto, Clarkie and Stevo.

    Now I know in Britain 'Paki' has a completely different history and meaning, but the word simply doesn't have this meaning in Australia. Here, it has been and will continue to be re-invented by just about everyone since it is the natural Aussie form of the word 'Pakistani' when following the innate grammatical rules of Austrayan English.

    I am all for ridding sport and everything else of hurtful old fashioned racist language when possible (for instance I can't stand that left arm leg spinners are still officially called 'chinamen') but it would be nice if people could avoid exporting their own cultural baggage to the world.

    To take a similar example, there was a series of KFC ads made in and for Australian audiences. They showed a series of situations in which someone was put in an awkward situation that they got out of by sharing a bucket of KFC (stupid ad yes, but bear with me here...). That summer, the West Indies cricket team was touring Australia and so KFC being a cricket sponsor, naturally one of these situations was when a (white) Aussie cricket fan in the crowd found himself surrounded by (black, naturally) West Indies fans. As in the other examples, he passes around a bucket of fried chicken. Once this was put on youtube the internetz exploded with Americans gobsmacked at these racist Aussies playing on the sterotype of Black Southern Americans eating a lot of fried chicken. Never mind that the people in the ad were not from America and that most Australians are probably unaware of this sterotype and wouldn't care anyway. The Americans wanted to export their own cultural guilt and baggage and take the ad completely out of context.

    I know it is confronting for a UK based person with Pakistani heritage to hear that word used so liberally in Australia, but this is actually a case of cultural understanding needing to go in all directions. One could argue, as in the above, that it is the responsibility of people to ensure they only use language that no one in any part of the world could possibly find offensive. Or one could argue that there is some responsibility of the potentially offended (or those offended on the behalf of others) to understand the different cultural history of the person using that word. Of course some kind of meet in the middle compromise between the two is probably the ideal.

    I'm not trying to pretend Australian cricket has been or is completely free of racism. I have several times heard the chant "I'd rather be a Paki than a Pom" at the SCG, which is clearly indefensible even if the full 'Pakistani' form was used. I'm sure some people have meant offence when using the word 'Paki', it's just that the majority of the time no offence is intended or envisaged.

  3. Hmm, I think backyard barbecue chat is a bit different to cricket commentators using the word "Paki" on national television. It is absurd to try and censor private conversations. But the cricket commentators have travelled to the UK for work and if they are unaware of the often offensive connotations of the word "Paki", they have been living under a rock. Just because no offence is intended, that doesn't necessarily make it right and in a multicultural country such as Australia, where plenty of British people of all backgrounds live and visit, it's unbecoming to call visiting cricketers "Pakis".

    That said, as Chris pointed out, there are instances of Pakistanis referring to each other as Pakis, just as some black people refer to each other as "niggers" or indeed women may refer to each other as "girls" but would not appreciate being called a girl in the workplace, for example.

    On the other hand, I know people who have been called Pakis as a term of horrible derision, including someone who was called a Paki by a schoolteacher and this cannot be defneded.

    In short, it's all about context. And I maintain that the context of cricket commentary is not the place for the word "Paki" - it is embarrassing and makes them sound willfully ignrant. I don't think it's political correctness gone mad to ask cricket commentators not to use a widely known racist slur when referring to visiting sportsmen.