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Tuesday, 13 January 2009

What Do We Mean When We Say Sooty?

A member of the British Royal Family has been calling a British-Asian "friend" of his "Sooty" for years. Some suggest this is racist, others that "political correctness has gone too far". What does someone mean by calling a friend - however affectionately - such a name? Why the disquiet? I think it comes from what the act of using such words implies - a statement of difference - a difference which needn't be remarked upon, in the first place. However, and this is not a justification - I think the Princes are wrong to speak and act as they do - nicknames have always been problematic. They are, often, gently mocking, with the gentleness really mixed with aggression - "shorty", "Little John", "lefty" - and so on - all implying a noticed quality of differentiation, which the friend then chooses to take as the "name" of the person he befriends. This act of renaming is an imaginative imperialism - a taking over from the naming that the parents presumably first enacted, which, in itself, is a curious violence, but one we cannot do without (though some parents, as we know, use such offensive or silly names that the law has to change them). Who has the right to one's name? Only the person himself. To be called "Sooty" is maybe permitted, but with how much shame, even if secret? To refuse such a name is awkward - and, given the royal position - socially impossible. It is the assumption of effortless and natural enjoyment of total power over others that is offensive. It is hardly "politically correct" then, to question royalty's use of painful language - it is, more directly, political. Britain, still, needs to slowly but surely disentangle itself from such awkward relationships with the monarchy, and all the linguistic twists and turns it bestows. I am still perplexed that there is a Sir Hoy, and not a Dame Adlington, for instance. At the heart of these accusations of political correctness gone mad is always the idea that words don't mean what they say or sound like. The British sometimes mean by this humour, or irony - but note that humour, as Freud argued - can hide aggression - or simply be aggressive. Too often, humour is called black, or sick, as if that defends it from its base negativity. When racist language is used - or sexist - or ageist - a question does need to be posed - if it is all just fun and games - why do it? I recall a BBC interview last year with a famous novelist who bemoaned how "PC" meant he couldn't make villains "foreign anymore" - which was a shame, because making epithets about foreigners was such "fun". Some colonial fun and games have gone on too long. Time for the soot to be wiped away.
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