Was John Sargeant right to use the ‘N-word’ on the BBC?


by Robert Sharp    
1:23 pm - January 19th 2013

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John Sargeant’s performance on the BBC Newsnight Review show yesterday was bizarre. He managed to say the n-word twice during a discussion of Django Unchained, and later described parts of a TV programme as “American bullshit”.

Among those watching the show, some wondered whether the BBC would receive complaints. Others applauded Sargeant’s no-nonsense approach. I found his language tiresome.

Clearly, Sargeant has the right to say rude words. I have long argued that people who cause offence should not be punished in the law, however unpleasant their comments. With that disclaimer out of the way, we can ‘review the Review Show’ and ask whether Sargeant should have repeated that most notorious of racial epithets.

I think his first use of the word was only barely justified. He was describing the fact that it was used a great deal in Quentin Tarantino’s film, and that it was also used a great deal in America during the era of slavery. So, the word was used in context. In these discussions, I think we excuse the speaker, granting a kind of ‘qualified privilege’ because we know one has to say the word if one is to discuss it.

Nevertheless, that entire conversational route seemed banal. Tarantino movies are known for their uncompromising language and violence. They are famous for depicting people at their most base and visceral. That this particular auteur would allow his characters to continuously and casually utter the n-word is barely noteworthy! It would have been more remarkable if the word had been absent from the script. Sargeant’s wide-eyed amazement at this most obvious and necessary of directorial choices seemed extremely naïve. He is clearly not familiar with Tarantino’s œvre.

Later, however, Sargeant asked his fellow panellist Natalie Haynes outright: “Would you use the word nigger in Television”. This was unnecessary. Precisely because of directors like Tarantino, there is no real taboo on the n-word in broadcasting. It is of course discordant to hear it from Sargeant’s polished lips, but being controversial and iconoclastic just for the sake of it is really quite tedious.

Likewise with the use of “bullshit” later in the programme. Some viewers thought this was cool, but Sargeant immediately drew attention to his bad language, “I’m not supposed to say that!” He tittered.

Yawn. It would have been classier to plough on with his review of the piece, without breaking stride. Classier still would have been to pick a better, more incisive word. “Bullshit” is a blunderbuss of a phrase that has no place on a programme that hopes to provide a genuine insight into contemporary culture.

So, for the sake of a cheap frisson in place of an actual critic’s insight, John Sargeant has used the bullies’ word. Twice. Those who have had that word spat at them, who have experienced the word used with venom, as a threat, with the intent to demean and suppress, would have recalled those experiences as the former BBC man smirked.

Should Sargeant be allowed to say such words in TV? Yes. Should we think better of him for doing so? No.

Update

Padraig reminds me of another antiquated phrase in Sargeant’s vocabulary:

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About the author
Robert Sharp designed the Liberal Conspiracy site. He is Head of Campaigns at English PEN, a blogger, and a founder of digital design company Fifty Nine Productions. For more of this sort of thing, visit Rob's eponymous blog or follow him on Twitter @robertsharp59. All posts here are written in a personal capacity, obviously.
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Reader comments


“The n-word”? What are you, eight years old?

All this rubbish about what language you can use is precisely why the left has become irrelevant.

Those who have had that word spat at them, who have experienced the word used with venom, as a threat, with the intent to demean and suppress, would have recalled those experiences as the former BBC man smirked.

“Now I ain’t sayin she a gold digger, but she ain’t messin with no broke niggas.”

Clearly “Those who have had that word spat at them, who have experienced the word used with venom, as a threat, with the intent to demean and suppress” must be fucking traumatised after listening to Kanye West then.

What really gets up my nose is the way that the chatterati use the phrase “the ‘n’ word”, knowing that when they say this, everyone hears the word as “nigger”. And that’s what matters isn’t it? If there’s going to be offensive language, then let’s have it out in the open.

Oh and I’m not a fan of Tarantino – I think that most of his films are bullshit. From Dusk till Dawn was good though, but that was directed by Robert Rodriguez.

It was a bizarre performance. He also used the words “Jewess” and “SuperBlack” -without the self-consciousness of his gleeful “We’re allowed to use the N-word!” routine- which was weird, and then he declared that the re-make of Yes, Prime Minister was funny, which was frankly disturbing.

Time to grow up I think, black culture uses “Nigger” constantly especially “street” language time to move on

I don’t think white people should use the N word now but it is clearly appropriate for actors to use it in a film about a period of history when the word was commonly used.

Time to grow up I think, black culture uses “Nigger” constantly especially “street” language time to move on

Just because black people use it in a specific context in hip-hop doesn’t mean you can use it without getting smacked in the face.

You are welcome to test this out in front of a black man. I’m sure my thesis stands up.

Was he right to use the word ‘nigger’?

In that context, discussing a film in which the word is used repeatedly because it forms part of the historical and cultural context in which the film is set, then of course Sargeant was right to use the word rather than resort to a euphemism – ‘the N-word’ – that is itself grossly overused and, frankly, extremely tiresome in itself.

Whether or not you think Tarantino makes gratuitous use of such language in his films is another matter entire but even that doesn’t mean that you have to resort to euphemisms to debate that question.

This isn’t particularly difficult, Robert. If the context of a debate or discussion justifies the use of the word ‘nigger’ then use the word – if it doesn’t then don’t go near it at all.

At best, I find the ‘n-word’ euphemism to little more than an ostentatious display of right-on-ness, a bit like humblebragging about volunteering or give money to charity. (Sorry, Robert…)

At worst it contributes to a dumbing-down of mainstream culture in which classic novels like Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ have to be bowdlerised to make them ‘acceptable’ to a supposedly modern audience and books like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘Brave New World’ routinely appear in American Library Association’s annual list of the top ten most ‘challenged’ books. When people are actually writing to the local library to demand that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ should be removed from its selves due to its racist content then something is seriously fucked up.

As for bullshit, it’s a word that we frankly don’t here often enough, particularly on political discussion programmes. Admittedly, I take a very particular view on the meaning of the word ‘bullshit’, one based on Harry G Frankfurt’s classic monograph on the subject of which this is, perhaps, the key passage:

“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to
the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly
indispensable that he considers his statements to be false.
For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away
with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”

Far from shying away from the word ‘bullshit’ we really should be doing more to promote Frankfurt’s formulation of the term and using it much more often to describe – accurately – what passes for mainstream political discourse. It is, for example, a pity that Frankfurt’s monograph wasn’t brought to the attention of Leveson LJ in the course of his inquiry into media standards where the proposition that bullshitters are largely unconcerned with the truth value of their statements is immediately applicable to the output of much of the mainstream press.

its all about context and the narrative,of course there will be an army of white middle class leftie liberals who love getting offended on behalf of minoritys,most of them read the guardian and and the independant,no doubt there will some sly leftie calling for a police investigation into john sargeants comments,i just watched a young sweet looking and innocent up and coming young black hip hop rap star in america called angel haze and her new single called werking girls,you want to be shocked by the n word,go watch on you tube,i was shocked.shall i complain?

10. the a&e charge nurse

[7] ‘You are welcome to test this out in front of a black man. I’m sure my thesis stands up’ – are you saying if there was a ‘black man’ on the show he would have decked Sargeant?

I have no strong feelings about use of the phrase bullshit – I think it is taken for granted nowadays that since the age of political spin integrity, or authenticity have become or less redundant concepts.

Sunny, it very much depends on the black man in question.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQdYM0ZzOEI

:)

Thanks for the comments, folks. As I said in the OP, I wasn’t particularly scandalised by Sargeant’s language. It’s just his entire contribution seemed very passé, yet many people seemed to think that merely saying a taboo word was to be admired.

Unity, I was actually asked about he editing of Twain at a publishers event last week. I’m planning a post about that sort of progressive orwellianising.

I think ‘Nigga’ is a very different word from ‘Nigger’ by the way. Two different English dialects, with two different meanings.

2 chris you’ve summed it up, This is all rediculous,

The Op Ed reads to me like a piece of competitive political correctness, a self-regarding piece of preening designed to demonstrate that the author possesses a right-on sensibility. Or as unity @ 8 puts it:

“I find the ‘n-word’ euphemism to little more than an ostentatious display of right-on-ness, a bit like humblebragging about volunteering or giv(ing) money to charity.”

I once went in a group to a production of Othello. Afterwards, one woman denounced the play as racist. Not to be outdone, another woman said the production was racist because it featured a white actor blacked up. Someone else made some equally fatuous comment. Competitive, politically correct, victim-identification was in full swing. When asked for her opinion, the only black person present said “I’m more interested that we’ve just seen a fine production of a great play by the world’s finest playwright”.

If you think I’m just trying to score points or win kudos through some kind of political correctness one-up-man-ship then I fear you have misunderstood.

What I am trying to get at is this: if we agree that offensive words and statements should never be proscribed (a genuine commitment to free speech requires nothing less, in my opinion) then are there instances were we would choose our language, in order to be more inclusive and persuasive? I have to tackle this question all the time at PEN, and to say that people should just simply be less offended, or that saying offensive words is always to be applauded, seems obtuse.

In the OP I agreed with consensus in the comments that using a taboo word in context is obviously acceptable. But the issues I describe happen a lot on broadcast television (involving Jeremy Clarkson more than John Sargeant, it must be said). I make no apologies for teasing out the minutæ of such issues on a website like this one.

16. the a&e charge nurse

[15] the rules can be difficult – here is one possible guide
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gYM6_hcf1Q

Robert @ 15:

“…are there instances were we would choose our language, in order to be more inclusive and persuasive?”

Yes. It’s just good manners. Much political correctness when reasonably and sensitively applied is in fact simply good manners – that one respects the sensibilities of others. So talking about the use of ‘nigger’ at a dinner or drinks party could easily cause unnecessary offence. On tv or in print reviews and discussions, I think it is quite a different matter.

18. So Much for Subtlety

So, for the sake of a cheap frisson in place of an actual critic’s insight, John Sargeant has used the bullies’ word. Twice. Those who have had that word spat at them, who have experienced the word used with venom, as a threat, with the intent to demean and suppress, would have recalled those experiences as the former BBC man smirked.

An interesting comment but one better directed at Quentin Tarantino than Sargeant I think. Especially that cheap frisson thing. Considering it is pretty much he entire stock in trade.

7. Sunny Hundal

Just because black people use it in a specific context in hip-hop doesn’t mean you can use it without getting smacked in the face. You are welcome to test this out in front of a black man. I’m sure my thesis stands up.

I don’t think people ought to use the word, but then I am not sure that anyone ought to endorse a world where bullies can say what they like and then use violence to stop anyone else stepping out of line either.

On tv or in print reviews and discussions, I think it is quite a different matter

So what did you make of the bit where I said:

. “Bullshit” is a blunderbuss of a phrase that has no place on a programme that hopes to provide a genuine insight into contemporary culture.

“Sargeant’s wide-eyed amazement at this most obvious and necessary of directorial choices seemed extremely naïve. He is clearly not familiar with Tarantino’s œvre.”

Maybe you should pay attention to what you are watching before spouting off about it online. Just for the record, (and regardless of the n-word issue) Sergeant, despite the fact that he is clearly over 60 years old, was neither wide-eyed nor amazed at Tarantino’s language, he liked the film, and showed familiarity with Tarantino’s oevre, including Inglorious Basterds. And if you had seen this latter film you would know that it is impossible to explain the impact of its climactic scene without using the J-word, which apparently you now also deem to be offensive, presumably on behalf of Jewish women everywhere, who I am sure are very grateful to you.

As for ‘bullshit’, as has been pointed out it is a tried and tested critical term. I’m not sure who is supposed to be offended by it, except maybe bulls. I am tempted to use it right now, in fact, but I wouldn’t want any angry bulls coming around here.

21. Richard Alexandar

So the word “classy” has returned from its grave.

21 – I’ve known it to be around for at least the past 10 years, usually as a way to describe girls.

He’s not wrong because he was a nigger. If your black then you’re a nigger I’m white so I’m white trash or a spook or whatever it is. It’s just a fact of life.

(7)

Are you claiming black men have to resort to violence in the face of inappropriate language…that they lack the wherewithal to respond other than with their fists? Or are you perhaps claiming that regardless of their ability to summon an appropriate rejoinder that they’d lash out anyway…cos black guys are like that? Either way, your comment is grossly racist.

Oh…hang on…maybe you mean that’s what you’d do…being a street hardened black geezer par excellence…and in no way like the popular image of craven, hand-wringing, lily-livered liberal commentariat…erm…yeah…right.

@1

“All this rubbish about what language you can use is precisely why the left has become irrelevant”.

Ah, yes, use this as a stick to beat the “left” with. Pathetic. Are you 4 years old? Do you use the word “nigger” when referring to black people because you see it as part of your right to “free speech”? Grow up.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.

If you don’t believe that, God help you.

27. Chaise Guevara

@ 7 Sunny

“Just because black people use it in a specific context in hip-hop doesn’t mean you can use it without getting smacked in the face.

You are welcome to test this out in front of a black man. I’m sure my thesis stands up.”

Saying ‘nigger’ because you’re discussing the use of the word is not racism. It’s reported speech.

Saying that black men will punch you if you say something they dislike IS racism, however. Well done.

28. Chaise Guevara

@ 25 buddyhell

“Ah, yes, use this as a stick to beat the “left” with. Pathetic. Are you 4 years old? Do you use the word “nigger” when referring to black people because you see it as part of your right to “free speech”? Grow up.”

Obviously the word shouldn’t be thrown around as an epithet. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend the word doesn’t exist, or use silly euphemisms that fool no-one.

Nor should we straw-man people and accuse them of racially abusing people just because they’re prepared to use the word in a discussion about language, even if they do say foolish things about the left.

@28

“Obviously the word shouldn’t be thrown around as an epithet”.

Of course not.

“Nor should we straw-man people and accuse them of racially abusing people just because they’re prepared to use the word in a discussion about language, even if they do say foolish things about the left”.

Moralising as ever, Chaise. Quelle surprise. I think I was right to put my point about “free speech” to him. No straw man there.

“Bullshit” is a blunderbuss of a phrase that has no place on a programme that hopes to provide a genuine insight into contemporary culture.

If only there were a pithy, one-word response to this nonsense.

Later, however, Sargeant asked his fellow panellist Natalie Haynes outright: “Would you use the word nigger in Television”. This was unnecessary. Precisely because of directors like Tarantino, there is no real taboo on the n-word in broadcasting. It is of course discordant to hear it from Sargeant’s polished lips, but being controversial and iconoclastic just for the sake of it is really quite tedious.

You are using the word ‘nigger’ in precisely the same way that Sargeant did – as am I.

There’s a difference between using the word and actually calling someone a ‘nigger’.

And people who use euphemisms like ‘the n-word’ ought to grow the frak up, frelling smegheads!

“Just because black people use it in a specific context in hip-hop doesn’t mean you can use it without getting smacked in the face.

You are welcome to test this out in front of a black man. I’m sure my thesis stands up.”

Because you think black people are violent?

33. Chaise Guevara

@ 29 buddyhell

“Moralising as ever, Chaise. Quelle surprise.”

Yes, how ridiculous of me, moralising away on a thread about a moral issue where everyone else, you included, is also busy moralising.

I must be a goddamn freak.

“I think I was right to put my point about “free speech” to him. No straw man there.”

You could argue that on the technicality that you didn’t actual make an accusation of racism, just asked about it. But the implication seems unnecessary, unfounded and childish to me.

34. Chaise Guevara

@ 31 Shatterface

“And people who use euphemisms like ‘the n-word’ ought to grow the frak up, frelling smegheads!”

Will you just frakking stop all the goram swearing?

For the record, as both Aspie and bipolar, I have no general objection to the use of the other ‘n-word’: nutter. And none against nutcase, wacko, crazy, psycho, schizo and all the other epithets neurotypical arsewipes take offense at on my behalf.

I find this infantilising (I am perfectly capable of stating my own objections if and when I need to) and I find the idea of someone exploiting my conditions as a trump card when they are attempting to impose their aesthetic values on other people far more offensive than those using these terms for comic effect.

Those who take offense on behalf of others are parasites.

36. Chaise Guevara

@ 35 Shatterface

“Those who take offense on behalf of others are parasites.”

Agree with you RE “nutter” etc., but I think this is going a little far. Yes, some people undoubtably use offence as a rhetorical tool in the way you describe, but others just instinctively want to defend people who are being attacked. Nothing wrong with that, and it doesn’t mean they see the person they’re defending as a victim (they might see them as the victim in that specific scenario, but not think that victimhood is an inherent quality to them).

Basically you probably shouldn’t put them all into the same category.

37. Matthew Blott

I agree with some of the earlier comments though for slightly different reasons – i.e. this is the sort of stuff that renders the left irrelevant to a lot of people.

First, I’ve defended Tarantino’s use of the repulisve word nigger because I’ve felt it mostly to be appropriate. Spike Lee’s criticism stinks somewhat when he uses the word in his own films – his anger seems to stem from the fact he feels only he and black directors should be allowed to employ the word. And yet after watching Django Unchained yesterday I have to agree with those who say Tarantino has an obsession with the word – it was peppered throughout the film at moments when I don’t think the character would have used it. The defence of credibility could not apply and when that is the case there is no justification.

Second, on swearing. I do not like casual bad language – it’s lazy and usually employed by thickos with a limited vocabulary. I do not use casual bad language myself. But I do swear – sometimes it’s appropriate. I would use the word bullshit, it’s a useful adjective that is appropriate in certain circumstances – rhetoric doesn’t always carry the force that is required. Similarly, I rarely use the word cunt but sometimes it’s appropriate – what other adjective perfectly describes Richard Littlejohn?

Third, I watched John Sargeant and I feel Sunny Hundal is getting his knickers in a twist. There is now a piety about anti-racism, as exemplified by Natalie Haynes, that is nauseating. I’m all for political correctness – I’m often the person telling off colleagues and friends for what might be construed as homophobic, sexist or racist language – but it is ridiculous when a person is criticised for using the word nigger simply to describe what was said. I’ve used the word in the presence of my own black family members in the sort of context used by John Sargeant – and they could tell the difference between discussion and abusive. I’m aware of its legacy and impact but some people need to grow up.

38. Matthew Blott

What was wrong with my last comment and why was it not posted?

@38 Nowt, the site lags every now and then, so there’s the occasional delay before a post will show.

Guys get real- The whole of Tarantino’s films and reason for his existence is to say the N word over and over again as much as he possibly can. I can’t feel comfortable saying it but I love gangsta rap. What middle class white boy doesn’t? I am absolutely not offended by anything John Sergent says in this clip, thanks for drawing my attention to it.

if any black guy or asian guy came up to me in the street and called me white trash as a racial insult, they would be picking out there teeth with there broken fingers

“You are welcome to test this out in front of a black man. I’m sure my thesis stands up.”
Very true but I don’t think Chris would. All mouth and trousers.
“For the record, as both Aspie and bipolar, I have no general objection to the use of the other ‘n-word’: nutter. And none against nutcase, wacko, crazy, psycho, schizo and all the other epithets neurotypical arsewipes take offense at on my behalf.”
Sorry but I do. You are obviously a strong minded and grounded man/woman. Many
who have those conditions, mainly venerable kids, are not and it genuinely hurts them deeply when a cruel idiot calls them a retard.
Also forget political correctness, calling people yids, niggers, pakis or retards is just bad manners and hurtful. Leave it to journos who have no morals, manners or empathy.


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