Sunday, August 23, 2009

Turning offence into pretence

Sometimes you know you've seen something exceptional, something that surpasses what you had thought possible. For many, Usain Bolt's performances in the World Athletics Championships will have done that.

For me, though, this article on the Guardian's website tops it. It's Brit getting irate, on the behalf of his Ukrainian girlfriend, that a slightly silly advert features a meerkat doing a parody of Russian accent.


The advertisement centres on the word "market" – a word that eastern Europeans/Russians pronounce "meerkat" – using talking CGI-animated meerkats. The sole point of this African animal's appearance is, it seems, to highlight the idea that east Europeans cannot pronounce the word market properly when they speak English. It struck me how racist it was to parody what is now a significant part of the British population in this way. It also occurred to me that were the ad to use stereotypical Indian or Caribbean accents in the same way it would never be allowed on TV.

It is, I think, the Platonic ideal of Guardian style idiocy: the whiny grievance-mongering, the humourless and the overwhelming self-righteousness: all over something that is really rather trivial and harmless.

(I should put in the disclaimer at this point that it could all be a send up of the Graun at its most intolerable. If so, it is so well executed I confess it completely took me in.)

The thing that makes me suspect it is not a spoof, however, is that at a time when there are quite a lot of things people could be getting bothered about, this peculiarly British brand of pompous, right-on censoriousness seems to be enjoying something of a revival.

I blame, well, not one particular group but that vast coalition of the prissy, the self-righteous, self-important – many of them religious and/or a certain type of left-winger it has to be said – who regard their right to not be "offended" as trumping all others. If it does nothing else, the meerkat piece exposes the vacuous and self-regarding nature of that particular argument.

The slightly worrying thing is that this brand of nonsense appears to be gaining traction. You remember all those stories from the Eighties about councils banning songs like Baa Baa Black Sheep because they were racist? And how this turned out to be something of a tabloid exaggeration? Yup. Well, we now have quangos telling their staff not to use phrases like "black sheep" and "right-hand man".

Note there is no evidence of anyone actually being offended. But with the perfect combination of bureaucratic arse-covering and grievance-mongering we get this mildly sinister attempt to enforce correctness in every aspect of the language. Frankly, they'd be far better off tackling the acres of jargon that infect public service literature. There really is no excuse for that.

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