Words we are not allowed to use

What began as a sincere attempt to eradicate or at least reduce discrimination, has for some time been having the opposite effect. Millions of people who no doubt regard themselves as liberal and tolerant, open to other beliefs and points of view, are proving to be anything but. 


The policy of re-writing history, dictating what people must think and believe, was integral to the Third Reich, the Soviet Union and the Communist regimes of East and Central Europe, and is also present, albeit to a lesser extent, in present-day Hungary under Orban and in Erdogan’s Turkey. But if you were to point out to the Thought Police of today  – the predominantly white, privileged, female social justice warriors who go boldly on the ether in their quest to make everyone as pure as they are – that they are behaving like Nazis, then you will be swiftly judged, found guilty and cancelled without trial. You might receive death threats, you could even be physically attacked – all for stating an opinion that they will not allow you to hold. But you are unlikely to meet these new Victorians in person: they rarely leave the safety of their keyboards.


The most recent manifestation of this new wave of visceral intolerance is being ‘woke’. This elastic concept has been adopted unreflectingly by a sizeable portion of the West’s most secure, comfortably-off citizens, and is increasingly used as a vehicle for their own prejudices and self-loathing, which they neither acknowledge nor confront.


To take but one example, there is the ‘N’ word. According to Woke Law, this deeply offensive word may never be used in any context whatsoever by anyone who is not Black. It must also be expunged from historical usage, including in books such as Huckleberry Finn, which reflects its era accurately and honestly. 


The Thought Police’s blanket ban on the ‘N’ word extends to non-Black people everywhere. Yet the vast majority of them would be unlikely to use it in any case, as it is almost wholly confined to the United States, with its history of legal segregation. 


When I was growing up in Britain in the 1960s, racial discrimination was an ugly but rarely considered part of life, even among reflective individuals. If questioned, most people would have admitted that it was offensive, patronising, divisive and uncivilised; that it should have been illegal, as it has subsequently and rightly become. Yet the most insidious aspect of racial discrimination at that time was its casual, often instinctual nature. It was simply the order of things.


There were many words to describe people of colour, all of them more or less offensive and shameful, and which do not need to be quoted here. We all know what they are, and if we are honest with ourselves, most of us have used them or acquiesced in their use. But in our individual ways we have also helped to make their use socially and legally unacceptable. 


But in the UK and the rest of Europe, indeed in most of the world, the ‘N’ word or its equivalent in other languages was and is not one of them. It is an American phenomenon, reflecting the deep fissures in their weak, spoilt, unjust and divided society, which appears to be becoming more, not less fractured. For all its economic and military might, the USA seems powerless to address its many divisions. By prohibiting the rest of the world from using their homegrown racial insult, they are attempting to export their own problems rather than confronting and solving them themselves; lecturing others rather than putting their own house in order. It is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the mirror. 


Trying to dictate what people think is an ultimately futile pursuit; even a casual examination of the totalitarian regimes of the past will show this to be true. So don’t tell us which words we are or are not allowed to use, particularly if they are not part of our usual vocabulary. As can be seen from the growing resistance to the Woke movement, it is likely to have the opposite effect. If you tell someone not to use a particular word, they will promptly do so. Anyone who has told a child not to swear knows this. 


You can give us your love, but not your thoughts. Our thoughts are our own. 


Recently I was re-reading Henry Bacon’s insightful study of the work of Luchino Visconti, the Italian cinema, opera and theatre director. Among the themes that Bacon discusses is the vital necessity for an artist to be free of any kind of boundary, any limit that society or life itself may attempt to impose on them, their nature or their vision. He refers to Isaiah Berlin’s reflections on certain nineteenth-century intellectuals, which he feels apply to Visconti, and also to Stendhal, who of all the writers of the era most closely resembles Visconti in character and background:

‘…they belonged to the class of those who are by birth aristocratic, but who themselves go over to some freer and more radical mode of thought and of action. There is something singularly attractive about men who retained, throughout their life, the manners, the texture of being, the habits and style of a civilised and refined milieu. Such men exercise a peculiar kind of personal freedom which combines spontaneity with distinction. Their minds see large and generous horizons, and, above all, reveal a unique intellectual gaiety of a kind that aristocratic education tends to produce. At the same time, they are intellectually on the side of everything that is new, progressive, rebellious, young, untried, of that which is about to come into being, of the open sea whether or not there is land that lies beyond. To this type belong those intermediate figures … who live near the frontier that divides old from new, between the douceur de la vie which is about to pass and the tantalising future, the dangerous new age that they themselves do much to bring into being’. 

In his book on Schopenhauer, Thomas Mann made the not-dissimilar observation that art is the ultimate manifestation of immanence, aspiration, and their interdependence: ‘Conceiving the world as a colourful and turbulent phantasmagory of images through which the ideal, the spiritual glows is something eminently artistic and allows the artist to find their true nature. They can be sensuously and sinfully attached to the world of phenomenon and appearances, because they know they belong to the spheres of both ideas and the spirit, as the magician who makes appearances transparent for them’. 

For some time we have been witnessing an imposition of borders and boundaries of all kinds, whether physical, moral or intellectual, which reflect the desire of fearful, insecure individuals to control that which is not theirs to control; to stifle the creative impulse. Humanity only flourishes when boundaries are set aside and imagination is given free rein, in order for connections to be created, bridges built, similarities celebrated. 

As Rainer-Maria Rilke wrote, in ‘Imaginärer Lebenslauf’: ‘Erst eine Kindheit, grenzenlos und ohne Verzicht und Ziel. O unbewußte Lust’.