Tory uses N-word… not

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"Tory MP suspended for racist remark" says the Financial Times headline, just two hours ago as I write this. A Conservative member of parliament suspended from the party within hours after being recorded making a racist remark in a public meeting! A remark involving "the N-word", too! As an anti-racist with no love for the Tories, I was eager to find out the details of this latest embarrassment. But in seconds after I turned to the first newspaper account I realized I was in for a disappointment. It turns out to be fake news. Anne Marie Morris, the very successful Conservative MP for Newton Abbot in the southwestern county of Devon, did not call anyone a nigger.

The United Kingdom is going to leave the European Union less than two years from now. Ms. Morris was making a reference to the possibility that this will come about before any kind of trade agreement has been signed. She brought the subject up by saying: "Now we get to the real nigger in the woodpile, which is in two years what happens if there is no deal."

Ms. Morris is 60. Not old enough to make her ancient, but old enough that she would recollect hearing that expression from older relatives who would not have thought there was anything wrong with it, just as I heard it from my parents and grandparents. The phrase had been a film title in 1904 and a song title in 1930. It appeared in a Dr. Seuss book (1929), a Hercule Poirot novel by Agatha Christie (Dumb Witness, 1937), and a Somerset Maugham novel (1944).

What it means is roughly "a hitherto concealed unpleasant surprise." Its origin may lie in the occasional practice of hiding escaping slaves in backyard stacks of wood in the days of the underground railroad. (It's ironic that while we would regard helping a slave to escape in this way as morally good, the idiom assumes that discovering a concealed African hiding amongst the fire logs would be a nasty surprise for the discoverer. But perhaps the idea is that the householder would have a problem if local law made it illegal to conceal a runaway slave. Who knows.)

I'm sure there are plenty of people who are genuinely shocked at any use of the word nigger in any context, and would be appalled to learn that the original title of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None was Ten Little Niggers. That's all good. I want the racist language of the past to lose favor and disappear. But — sorry to be pedantic — there's more to being racist than simply uttering a familiar idiom containing a word that is now regarded as taboo.

Ms. Morris used a fixed phrase with its idiomatic meaning, and it contained a word which, used in other contexts, can be a decidedly offensive way of denoting a person of negroid racial type, or an outright insult or slur. Using such a slur — referring to a black person as a nigger — really would be a racist act. But one ill-advised use of an old idiom containing the word, in a context where absolutely no reference to race was involved, is not.

I reluctantly have to defend Ms. Morris. Silly though her choice of idiom was in a modern context, I cannot see her slip-up as a suspension-worthy offense, however much I love to see Tories making fools of themselves and getting bad press.

Update, 7/11/17: It's an unpopular view that I've expressed above. I've had several emails objecting to it. But note that I do not think it is good to carry on using the idiom nigger in the woodpile: it isn't. It types you as a silly old fool who hasn't caught up with modern phraseology or appreciated how toxic racist terminology is considered to be these days, even when it's buried in idioms. My advice would be don't use the phrase, ever. However, it seems to me misguided to suspend someone from their political party for not heeding that advice. Referring to a hidden problem as a nigger in the woodpile is not a "racist remark," and the Financial Times should not have called it that.

Of course, my headline is deliberately designed to have the same misleadingness about "using the N-word" that so many of the newspaper headlines had, just to entice the reader to read on. Ms. Morris did use the word nigger, in the sense that she uttered it. But not to refer to any black person. It's very much like the issue of whether your uncle has mentioned buckets when what in fact he said was that a friend of his had kicked the bucket. He did use the word bucket, in a way, but not to refer to a bucket.

The main reason I am against tabooing words, even words as unpleasant as nigger, is that it gives them too much power. (The Financial Times couldn't bear to put down the letters: they spelled it as n***** to suppress its evil magic.) I'm worried about much more serious signs of resurgent racism than mere use of an outdated idiom from long ago. For example, the clear and explicit attempts by Republican state governments in several states to pass voter-suppression legislation quite deliberately intended to decrease the African American vote. That's really serious. So is the fact that Ms. Morris has a partner, also her electoral agent and partner, who publicly claimed that the crisis in UK education was due entirely to non-British born immigrants and their high birth rates. That really does sound like racist talk. The Financial Times didn't even mention it. We're getting offended at trivial things while really serious political issues pass us by. That's my worry.

Update to the update, July 13: A Language Log guest post by Tony Thorne links to an interesting list of a huge number of occurrences of nigger in the woodpile in parliamentary speeches over the past century. I think Tony has it exactly right when he calls the phrase a "crass archaism". You could say that my point in the post above is that we shouldn't be squandering moral capital on suspending people from their parties for using crass archaisms that will die out naturally; we should be concentrating on the real signs of racism in public life. The appalling story of Viscount St David and his racial abuse (and incitement to murder) of a woman whose sin was winning a supreme court judgment while being a non-white immigrant, for example. That really is a case of racism. He has actually been convicted of a criminal offense for it, as is richly deserved. And notice that Boris Johnson MP was never suspended from his party for talking about black children as piccaninnies with watermelon smiles; he has been made foreign secretary by the same prime minister who has suspended Ms. Morris.

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