Drop the word ‘chav’


2:54 pm - July 16th 2008

by Sunder Katwala    


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Ziauddin Sardar, an Equality Commissioner, made a common sense plea in yesterday’s Guardian for a “sensibility for civility” in the way we treat others. It was an attempt to acknowledge how “derogatory words make way for degrading treatment” while seeking to sidestep the flame wars, and backlash, generated by an excessive policing for ‘political correctness’.

Our experience with PC language argues this is not something we can, or should, police. But that does not mean being indifferent and taking no action to promote civility through language that is neither jargon nor the ungainly, unspeakable invention of impersonal committees. What we need is common sense and a commitment to a sensibility that values the dignity of all.

This is well argued and sensible, though it is probably true that, in Britain at least, ‘political correctness’ has largely been a caricature (a “straw person”, as it were), rarely used other than to complain about ‘political correctness gone mad’.

But attempts to promote this approach may still face that kind of backlash.

Tom Hampson writes, in the forthcoming Fabian Review issue on the theme of class, about how “chav” has become more socially acceptable at the same time as casual racism or homophobia are more likely to be challenged. He calls for its usage to be challenged.

Would we get away with saying “faggot” on the BBC? No – there are very few circumstances where that would be acceptable. Would the Guardian print the word “pikey”? Well they have done five times this year (three times were earnest discussions about the word’s racism, and the other two were, well, a bit racist). Can you use the word “gay” as a general derogative (as in “those trainers are really gay”) on Radio 1? Well yes, it turns out that you can, according to the BBC Trust. Could we use the n-word in the Fabian Review? Well probably not, especially when making the point that there is rightly a hierarchy of offensiveness. Some uses of some words fall below the threshold of acceptability and some are definitely above it. “Chav” is way above that threshold. It is deeply offensive to a largely voiceless group and – especially when used in normal middle-class conversation or on national TV – it betrays a deep and revealing level of class hatred.

This has provoked a reaction on Comment is Free from many people defending their right to chav hatred.

This in part reflect the somewhat misleading headline “Ban the word ‘chav’“. The argument would be better summarised as “Drop the word Chav”.

Hampson is simply arguing that its use can not be justified by those who think of themselves as progressive or on the left. The only regulatory suggestion is that the BBC should include ‘chav’ in its guidelines for programme makers, in the same way it does routinely for other offensive terms. (Remember how the BBC thought it was funny to commission a programme called ‘Pramface Mansion’ before retreating)

The main response, expressed slightly tongue in cheek, is for a social response.

From now on – embarrassingly PC though it may seem – we shall audibly “tut tut” and wince whenever we hear the word used. You should too.

As one respondent to Sardar put it:

You can’t ban words nor their use, just show your disapproval when they are used inappropriately

However, Zoe Williams today, agrees that the term is offensive, warns against the PC trap of increasing its transgressive power.

Those who think that throwing the word ‘chav’ around is simply a bit of harmless fun might be given pause for thought by a report yesterday of a murder trial at Winchester Crown Court.

A man accused of murdering a teenager told police he was not upset to hear his victim had died because he had a strong dislike of ‘chavs’, a court heard.

Prosecutor Timothy Mousley QC told the jury that the next day Sewell bragged to friends that he had stamped on a man’s head.

Sewell allegedly said: ‘Don’t worry, it’s just another chav’.

Mr Mousley said: ‘The defendant said he was not upset for Jed Sheridan because he had a strong disliking for chavs.

Here ‘chav bashing’ does seem to have taken on similar characteristics to violent attacks motivated by racism or gay-bashing (though I am not trying to get into a competition about a hierarchy of offensiveness or suffering, and I am not claiming that violent attacks are on a similar scale).

I doubt many people on Liberal Conspiracy want to defend the use of the epithet ‘chav’.
But should its prevalence be challenged or not? And how?

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments


I had a thought about this when I read the piece yesterday. My first reaction was to wonder what all the fuss was about, but thinking about it I couldn’t find one reasonable usage for the words use.

The way to tackle it? The way vulgarity and offense has always been tackled, with a fully voluntary movement of subtle disapproval along side an over-use of the term leading to ownership of said insult being taken by the “victim” until it is no longer an offensive term.

Whenever I hear someone use the word ‘chav,’ I immediately think ‘snob’ and tend to switch off from whatever else the person is saying. I guess we all have our prejudices.

Bloody hell, since when did *goths* go chav-bashing? Talk about world-turned-upside down.

Anyway… amongst all the “oooh, PC gone mad, first they stopped me saying n*gg*r and f*gg*t, now this” bigoted nonsense on the CiF thread, there was a decent point made by several commenters that never really got addressed: ‘chav’ is originally and primarily used within working class communities to refer to lairy antisocial wasters who strut about the place in expensive sportswear spitting and swearing – not as a term referring to the working classes in general.

Saying ‘chav’ is class hatred is effectively saying that all working class people are lairy antisocial wasters who strut about the place in expensive sportswear spitting and swearing, which I’m not sure is a particularly left-liberal attitude.

(the biggest chav I know, in the proper sense of the term, is a 21-year-old property developer from Surrey whose parents are middle-class and very wealthy.)

Perhaps we should worry more about why we have “youth… associated with aggression, poor education”, than the label used to describe them.

John B says above that chav ‘originally and primarily’ refers to a self-selecting shiftless underclass with a particular dress sense. The defence I hear of its use is this is a culture that shiftless criminal youths choose to be part of when they put on the Burberry, so they deserve the mockery.

Perhaps this was true when the term was first coined, but the insidious thing is that you don’t have to look far to find the word being used to mean ‘the undeserving poor’, or indeed ‘the poor and badly dressed’.

So, one, it’s a sneaky way that many of us enjoy straightforward snobbery with the prefab defence that we’re condemning a self-selecting subculture, and two, it permits sneering attitudes to that subculture to bleed into more general sneering attitudes to the working class.

6. Mike Killingworth

So it’ll be all right just to call them “louts” instead, will it?

I know I’m an old fuddy-duddy but I thought the point was not to criticise people for things they can’t help being, not things they choose to do (or wear).

I don’t think the word “chav” is used to be synonomous with “working class” as at least one person has pointed out above, the working class use it themselves to refer to, erm, chavs. As in, youth who go around committing crimes.

But isn’t it more of a concern that 99% of valdalism, mindless assault, muggings and brutal attacks on teenage goths derives from the chav community? Isn’t that slightly more of a worry than the fact that there is a word used to describe these people?

I think this is a case of too much time on their hands.

C’mon Sunder, this is just a case of creating a shitstorm where none existed.

This piece was linked on the BBC’s DisAbility site, Ouch, today too!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/15/equality.humanrights

disengaging…

Shall we talk instead about how 1,500 people per day are dying violent deaths in DR Congo, and have been for 30 years now.

Al, who are the chav community. AK, you’ve nailed it on the head, it so permits sneering attitudes to that subculture to bleed into more general sneering attitudes to the working class.

What should we do, apart from complain?

Let’s reclaim the term chav from the reactionary bigots. As Lee argues, let’s take it over until is no longer an offensive term. Chavvy is the old Romany word for “youth” and I would recommend going to http://www.savvychavvy.com. It’s an online space which enables young travellers to help to change how their community is perceived.

check this video they did http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RTQVmVxsA4

Yes, when the working class come up with a word to describe the feckless losers they despise as much as the rest of us, let’s tell them they are being naughty and classist and they must stop immediately…

How very Liberal. FFS.

‘Yes, when the working class come up with a word to describe the feckless losers they despise as much as the rest of us’

Just because you wear a tracksuit and like a certain type of music doesn’t make you a ‘feckless loser.’ Some people who enjoy these things have a job and even *shock horror* a brain.

Some are even quite nice people, which you might find out if you ever get beyond lumping them all together into one convenient slur.

Of course no-one is saying you can’t call people chavs. You can call them common, or pikey scum or whatever else you like. Just don’t expect not to be judged for it.

Jennie, the feckless losers the word tries to describe are equally likely to live in dead-end Belgravia or Mayfair mewshouses as a cul-de-sac on a neglected council estate, so ‘chav’ is inaccurate at best.

That certain parts at both ends of the social scale try and fail to imitate each other is an amusing adjunct to this miscast discussion.

For the ‘equality commissioner’ to attack our language only highlights the irrelevance of the intervention as it does nothing to address the political causes of inequality. The culture of communication is only one way in which relationships are understood, not created, so this case is another example of public appointed representatives failing to understand the nature of representation.

If the best that Ziauddin Sardar can do is to pretend to promote equality with statements like these then he can’t do the job properly and should stand down in order to let someone with the ability take over. He may be a prolific and respected critic, writer and lecturer but 18 months into the job with no comment on any number of high-profile concrete cases of inequality – we need to ask what is he paid for. Where are his contributions to the inequality debate? How has he failed to build up the profile of his office in order to bring the weigh of our institutions to bear in holding the government to account?

Is Mr Sardar just another political appointment designed to neuter opposition by his favorable disposition to our PM?

To paraphrase the great George Carlin, there are no bad words, only bad thoughts and bad intentions.

If you’ll forgive me for saying this, this is precisely the kind of po-faced nonsense that gets right on my tits. Words have meaning and context, and the precise meaning of words in the English can, and does, alter according to the context in which they’re used.

To be brutally honest, on reading Tom Hampson’s post of CiF, I got as far as his typically ostentatious reference to ‘the n-word’ and went looking for something more interesting to read. The word is ‘nigger’ and its use is perfectly acceptable as a figurative reference but not as a pejorative term of abuse.

In short, when Tom asks ‘could we use the word nigger in the Fabian Review?’ then the only correct answer is ‘yes, if its used in it proper context’, as in posing the question ‘could we use the word nigger in the Fabian Review?’, in fact I can easily conceive of situations in which it would be ridiculous not to use the word, as when writing about the history of the American civil rights movement where substituting ‘the n-word’ would strip an article of its emotional impact.

If your suggestion is simply that we should avoid using the word ‘Chav’ as a pejorative terms then that’s fair enough, but do make it clear that it’s that you’re referring to specifically, as anything just makes you appear rather ridiculous.

“Shall we talk instead about how 1,500 people per day are dying violent deaths in DR Congo, and have been for 30 years now.”

Obviously not 😉

For the first time in ages I agree with John B.

‘Chav’ is a term for young people who dress and behave in a certain way, not for all working class people, and I fully intend to continue using it in that way.

I’m going to use it to raise awareness of young travellers through promoting “savvy chavvy”. Be keen to put the spotlight on this group as the only people that talk about them are those that want them off their land! Have any political groups engaged with travellers?

A person can be poor, or working class, without being a chav. Similarly a chav need not be either poor or working class. To assume that these things are the same shows only that you don’t actually come into meaningful contact with poor people, working class people or chavs. I’m afraid that’s the message about the Fabian Society that I took away from this story.

Ah, the Banning Culture – very Nu Labor.
A word can be totally legitimate but if its use offends some group – usually not its target – then it should be expunged somehow from common usage?
Maybe those AI powered listening CCTV cameras can help there.
Pikey is supposedly racist because it could be used, hundreds of years ago, to include a certain ethnic group.
Whatever happened to negro, and spastic? These words are not actually offensive in themselves, and have merely been replaced by others, which will, in time, also be replaced.
Any word can be offensive if you shout it loudly enough.
“BLOODY LIBERALS!”

The term is ‘charver’ in my neck of the woods (Newcastle) and was in use long before before ASBOs, Vikki Pollard, and comedians on panel shows making jokes about ‘chavs’. I certainly won’t stop using the term (charver, that is) just because the MSM has adopted and perverted the term to mean anybody with a strong regional accent who doesn’t know that it’s white wine with fish. If everybody decided tomorrow to refer to these thoroughly unpleasant people as ladies and gentlemen, it wouldn’t stop them dressing like clowns, affecting caricaturish accents, and behaving abysmally.

I’m working class, my friends are working class, and we aren’t charvers. We don’t dress like them, we don’t speak like them, we don’t behave like them. This is despite the fact we attended the same schools and live in the same areas as them.

If those who are insulated from the debilitating effect of having to live with charvers on a daily basis want to stop using ‘chav’, that’s fine by me. They don’t know the meaning of the word anyway, so they’re unable to use it appropriately.

I’m sorry but your article is completely wrong. How is calling somebody a ‘chav’ the same as calling a black man a “n—–” or a homosexual a ‘faggot’. A Black man cannot choose his pigment and no gay man chooses his sexuality. A “chav” however is somebody who chooses to dress, walk, talk and generally conduct himself in a way that is coarse, boorish, highly unpleasant and highly unnecessary. Nobody forces them to do it; I have witnessed extremely poor Africans strive to make themselves clean, smart and tidy and to conduct themselves with dignity, so it has nothing to do with class prejudice. No, they do it because it is seen as socially acceptable. It is socially acceptable thanks to the cultural relativism fermented in the academy which has been transmitted outwards and is now having its practical effect on wider society. The relativism that has ruled the minds of intellectuals and people such as yourselves (particularly Laurie Penny) has also come to rule the minds of the ordinary people and the poorest among them . Thus we have come to the point where there is nothing to choose between good manners and bad manners, refinement and vulgarity, charm and loutishness. These distinctions are just a bourgeois prejudice without intellectual or moral justification.

But how many of you dress and talk and behave like “chavs”? Probably very few, because it’s just too kitsch for most of you. I wonder how many of you decorate yourselves with tattoos or (if you were old enough) would let their 12 year old son do so? I’m guessing only a small minority. Why? Because tattoos have a traditional association with aggression and deep down you know that they reveal a complete lack of taste. They are an attempt to achieve character and identity by means of mere adornment, which implies a certain narcissism and an intellectual vacuity.

But if it’s not acceptable for you or for your children then why it should it be okay for the poorest people in our society? Judging from your objections to this admittedly judgmental word, you seem very anxious to deprive people of any moral imperative to conform to any standard conduct whatever. Do you want to see the lowest common denominator triumph? If you’re a communist like Laurie Penny then perhaps yes, but what about ordinary liberals? Can you not see that it is precisely this attitude which is helping to turn Britain from a class into a caste society with social mobility coming to a halt or going into reverse? It makes any social aspiration besides downward aspiration pointless. It therefore immobilises people in their poverty; a material, mental and spiritual poverty. You are actually damning the people whom you wish to shelter from disapproval.

Now I was born and have lived in Poland and I’m also half Italian so I think I can bring an element of foreign perspective here. I can tell you that the English are no longer held in high regard by anybody. Across the whole of Europe the drunken, vulgar, and uninhibited behaviour of young Britons is exasperating and disgusting. And it’s definitely not just the “underclass” it’s the middle-class youths as well who feel that such behaviour is OK. They just cannot seem to enjoy themselves without being obnoxious. Anglophilia has all but evaporated in the past few years. You are seen as (to be quite frank) the “scum of the earth”. (By the way, best pretend to be Germans if you are ever sitting in back of a Krakovian taxi cab, otherwise you may be refused a ride; such is the intolerance of many cab drivers towards the English)

Similarly, it is undeniable that many if not most moderate Muslims (who are the best hope of undermining the extremists) think that British urban society is just too brutal and decadent to be worth being part of. It’s true and it is this rather than any intolerance shown towards them which is the real integration problem.

Now the word “chav” is a bit of a silly word and this is not the crux of the issue here. What concerns me about this new moral crusade is that it shows a total lack of awareness of how societies cohere and how existence within them becomes tolerable, let alone nice. The law cannot forbid bad manners or discourtesy or nastiness. But it is clear that if the prevalence of these things increase, social life becomes more fraught with friction and danger. I am sure you Sunder have good manners and good tastes. Why then do you have so little confidence in the value of things that you value? Why are you so untroubled by the mechanism of their disappearance or destruction?

The sad and painful truth about Britain is that in no other European country have the forces of decency and civility retreated so far in such a short space of time. Even as British society has grown richer, it has in many ways gone backwards culturally. But several of you seem unable to recognise this obvious truth, let alone begin to solve it, If the British could see themselves as other people see them then they simply wouldn’t be as they are.

@JAleks
I agree with almost all of what you have said. The core of tolerance is choice, you can’t choose skin colour, sexuality etc., you do choose your religion and politics.
My main disagreement is on tattoos, body modification is a means of expressing yourself by taking ownership of the only thing that is truly yours – your body.
Employers may enforce hairstyles and dress codes (my current employers not only demand a tie but a ‘business belt’, whatever that is), the state may demand that you cover up certain parts of your body, even lock you up without charge, and outsource your torture, but there is still one thing that you can symbolically take possession of – through art.
Obviously art is subjective, and MILLWALL inked on a lout’s neck is nothing to be proud of, any more than a chav’s Nike tracksuit.

(By the way, best pretend to be Germans if you are ever sitting in back of a Krakovian taxi cab, otherwise you may be refused a ride; such is the intolerance of many cab drivers towards the English)

That’s pretty damning. The English are so unpopular in Poland now that you are better off pretending to be German

Visiting Sweden in my youth, I was told to speak English rather than accented Swedish, as that would avoid trouble (trouble due to them thinking I was an immigrant) and get me more respect, in fact it was even considered glamorous to be English. That’s no longer true. It’s similar to Canadians having to point out that they’re not Americans, I guess.
But I digress…

“(By the way, best pretend to be Germans if you are ever sitting in back of a Krakovian taxi cab, otherwise you may be refused a ride; such is the intolerance of many cab drivers towards the English)”

Well that’s a crude generalisation, based upon selective experience and ignorance. Hmm anyone want to call it prejudice?

Yup, JAleks’ whole post was the kind of ignorant bigotry that, if applied by someone English to another nationality rather than vice versa, would rightly be called out as nonsensical racist stereotyping…

Commenting on how the English are widely perceived abroad is hardly ignorant bigotry – and since when have the English been a race?

“Commenting on how the English are widely perceived abroad is hardly ignorant bigotry – and since when have the English been a race?”

OED: “A tribe, nation, or people, regarded as of common stock. In early use freq. with modifying adjective, as British race, Roman race, etc.”

Wikipedia:
The term race or racial group usually refers to the concept of dividing humans into populations or groups on the basis of various sets of characteristics. The most widely used human racial categories are based on visible traits (especially skin color, cranial or facial features and hair texture), and self-identification.

If that particular OED definition is the right one then there’s no race relations problem in this country – except with people who hold a foreign passport – or is anyone who doesn’t ‘appear to be of the English race’ not actually English?
The OED is merely a collection of uses of words, right or wrong, it is not a definition.

31. Charlieman

JAleks: “How is calling somebody a ‘chav’ the same as calling a black man a “n—–” or a homosexual a ‘faggot’”

If you feel that you can type the word “faggot” as a non-expletive, feel free to use the word “nigger” likewise. That was just silly self-censorship.

I self-censored using the word “chav” two years ago. I observed how the meaning of the word was changing, and when it stopped being the equivalent of Scottish “ned” I started to challenge people about it. “Chav” did not originally mean underclass or poor working class; it defined attitudes that separated “chavs” from the working class.

I believe it’s all about intent. If you use a word as an insult then it should be regarded as such, if not, then it shouldn’t. If someone refers to all working class people as chavs then that’s their problem, the rest of us shouldn’t have to modify our behaviour because of it.
My kids are blonde haired, blue eyed and around 6 foot tall – at school they got called ‘blonde niggers’. Do we need to ban the word blonde as well?
Ian Dury was banned by the BBC for the song Spasticus Autisticus (about being handicapped) – the fact that he himself was a spastic wasn’t a good enough excuse, apparently. He wasn’t out to insult anyone and certainly didn’t need protecting from himself.

“Commenting on how the English are widely perceived abroad is hardly ignorant bigotry – and since when have the English been a race?”

I don’t think its bigotry… it would be bigotry if you were inciting animosity or hatred towards a group. This rather reminds of the times when Tim Mongtomerie of CH keeps talking about anti-Americanism as if its some sort of a big disease infecting anyone who questions American foriegn policy.

‘I can tell you that the English are no longer held in high regard by anybody. Across the whole of Europe the drunken, vulgar, and uninhibited behaviour of young Britons is exasperating and disgusting.’

Um… I have to concede that this is, if not in the whole of Europe (I don’t have that much knowledge!), definitely true in France.

I have to admit as well that I did cringe whenever I saw English people behaving like that. In fact, it was only the American tourists who managed to outdo us for obnoxiousness… No offense to anyone, I know that everybody is not like that!

“This rather reminds of the times when Tim Mongtomerie of CH keeps talking about anti-Americanism as if its some sort of a big disease infecting anyone who questions American foriegn policy.”

Indeed, Iain Dale and Stephen Pollard have written on similar themes. The latter went so far as to proclaim that he wore cufflinks coloured with the stars and stripes, in fearless solidarity with our oppressed ‘cousins’.

Bloody PC sub-Marxist wishy washy types.

@34 Amrit, are you sure “definitely true” isn’t itself selective justification?

37. Rachel Brown

I have been trying to make this point for years ever since my Student Union decided to hold a “chavs” night at the local Union club.

John B @ comment 3 says it all.

From an academic perspective, chavs are what political theorists would call “scrotes”, or “scum”.


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