Wednesday, December 19, 2007


The N-Word Versus the F-Word

There’s been a lot of fuss about Radio One’s banning and un-banning of Fairytale of New York. Which, of course, they didn’t ban. They bleeped. Now, censorship is usually a bad idea and frequently a silly one, and it’s difficult to get more ridiculous than bleeping a word in a pop song. But I’ve got one question. Why is everyone chortling over “faggot,” a word derived from the religious practice of burning gay men alive (something, call me old-fashioned, that I find rather offensive), while no-one would ever say on the airwaves the word “N*****,” which is derived from “black”?

I don’t like the word “faggot,” and I sometimes mumble something when someone says it. But I’ve always thought Fairytale of New York was a catchy song, and I only wince a bit at that word (actually, it makes me wince much more coming from Kenneth Williams in Carry On Cleo, and I think that’s a fantastic film). Let’s face it, if I took major umbrage every time I heard a homophobic word, I’d never simmer down, and even complaining that you find something offensive – an exercise of your free speech – is a far cry from calling for it to be banned, which is a denial of someone else’s free speech. As long as the general direction of society’s getting more Liberal and less tolerant of homophobia, this sort of thing’s not worth a fuss, either. Add to that, even if I was one of those peculiarly intolerant people disposed towards censorship, the fact remains that gay people have always been much more likely to be on the receiving end of that, too. I’m even old enough to remember being at school and knowing how stupid the BBC looked for banning Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax because it was about shagging (and that was before I knew I was gay, so I’m happy to say I had some youthful Liberal instincts, or at least anti-establishment ones). So I’m caught between rejoicing at censorship being shown up for being ridiculous, and sadness that yet another hate word’s been given an extra-special boost to use against gay kids in the playground.

But I’d never say or type the word “N*****,” because it’s become such an offensive term. And, I don’t particularly want traffic from the sort of loathsome gits who’d Google-search for the word. Why is it that a word that, looked at objectively, is so much less brutal than one that intrinsically means ‘You should be killed horribly’, is actually seen as so much worse? Well, in part it’s because you can’t look at hate objectively, and you can’t separate the N-Word from its uses and its history, too. Lynching isn’t implicit in the N-Word as burning is to the F-Word itself, but it’s part and parcel of the cultural use of it, which is why it’s so calculatedly shocking when it’s reclaimed by acts like NWA (which, again, of course I wouldn’t censor). But that still doesn’t explain why, rather than being seen as morally equivalent, the N-Word is social death and the F-Word is evidently to most commentators just an excuse to smile.

The answer, I think, is that it simply reflects where ‘opinion-formers’ have got to. And so racism is for most people and certainly for the media establishment – just look at even the Sun and the Daily Hate Mail shrieking at Jade Goody early this year – something that you can’t support in public. But homophobia… Well, we’re a few decades behind, so it’s all right for that still to be a bit of a laugh.

And, if you tune in to Doctor Who’s Voyage of the Damned on Christmas evening, by the way, you’ll find that the people behind it must be quite fond of Fairytale of New York, too. The new song in it, The Stowaway, is a dead ringer for that tune…

Embarrassed Update: my argument about taking offence being fine but censorship being not stands, but researches by the learned Jonathan Calder suggest that I’m wrong on the etymology of “faggot”. Oh well. If he’s right, quite a lot of people I know are wrong… But with Jonathan, you learn something new every day, and this one wasn’t even about Shropshire!

I’m still fairly sure, however, that the derivation of “bugger” is from “Bulgar,” as Bulgarians, heretics and gay people were suddenly the Church’s big new enemies in the Twelfth or Thirteenth Centuries. Yes, if you want traditional Christianity, they only invented homophobia two-thirds of the way into the Church’s history: new-fangled rubbish ;-)

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Good post Alex. I don't think "everyone is chortling" at the "f" word. I'm certainly not and I didn't realise it was in "Fairytale of New York" and am a bit alarmed reading the lyrics written down for the first time. I wouldn't use the f word or the n word. I came unstuck with the n word once because my mother used to use the phrase "n in a wood pile" a lot and I repeated it - it just slipped out - I should have said "fly in the ointment" instead - but stupidly said it and I am still living it down ten years later.
Interestingly they showed an old recording of this song on TOTP and the F line was reworded as "you scumbag, you maggot, your old and your haggard..."

Does the BBC blank out the N word when it is well used in context - for example Bob Dylan's "Hurricane"?
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