Thursday , June 20 2024

Doublethink is the new Black

Lately I’ve taken to reading the London Gazette.

There’s not a lot in it to like, really. It’s not what you’d call a riveting read. You get a sense of what it’s like from how it describes itself. ‘A modern, efficient way to disseminate and record official, regulatory and legal information’ is what the blurb says. It doesn’t have cartoons in it, or sports pages, either. I can’t say I enjoy it, particularly, or come out of it in any way enriched.

It’s just that I feel I ought to keep an eye out for the announcements, you know? Keep an eye out for them, when they come, so that I can avoid saying something stupid again.

I’ve been caught out once too often, you see.

I did it the other day. I spoke about ‘the British Olympic Team’ to a couple of sports fans and I got this pitying look from them that I didn’t quite understand. And then in the next sentence – and I’m sure this wasn’t a coincidence – the words ‘Team GB’ were mentioned three times. If not four.

It was like I’d said “What are you young folk listening to on the wireless these days? Do you like to jig along to the pop music?” It was like talking to my daughters about going to see a film at ‘the pictures’ – something that occasions much sighing and rolling of the eyes in my home. I don’t know why that is: maybe ‘the pictures’ is just not what people say, these days.

So you see my anxiety.

I’m over fifty now, you know. Yes. I SAID, I’M OVER FIFTY.

And I’ve recently discovered that when there’s an official deed-poll name-change, the London Gazette is where the official notice is published, and has been since 1914. So I’m hoping that the next time, when something else suddenly and inexplicably starts being known as something else, they’ll publish the details there and I’ll know.

I missed the announcement for Mumbai, unfortunately.

One minute there I was, happily wittering away about Bombay and Bollywood. Or at least, in as far as I talk about these things I was, which isn’t much, admittedly. But I must have blinked and missed something, because the next minute it wasn’t called that any more and I was getting these strange looks everytime I mentioned the place, and people pointedly saying ‘Mumbai’ at me. No-one’s actually said ‘Mollywood’ yet, but there’s time, I think.

It doesn’t do to ask why, I’ve discovered. You’re just supposed to know. You’re just supposed to act like you’ve always known and always said it that way. And anyway, even if you do ask, you won’t get the actual answer. That isn’t how these things work. You’ll get something like ‘Mumbai? We call it that because that’s what they call it where they come from, in India.’ And it won’t do to point out that in India itself, where the people of Mumbai come from, they call their country Bharat; or that the Germans call Germany Deutschland; or that the Spaniards call Spain Espana. It won’t do to ask to what degree you’re supposed to put on an ‘authentic’ accent when you talk about foreign places, as BBC news reporters sometimes do when talking about Bahrain (Bacchhrrrain). Or whether you ought to stub out an imaginary Gaulois and shrug your shoulders every time you mention Paris (Pahree-err). It won’t do to ask whether the correct course of action might be to go the whole hog and switch your conversation to another language entirely when referring to the kinds of places where other languages are spoken. Or whether the correct form, on discussing the vexed question of Scottish independence, say, might be to pull on one of those tartan hats you can get from the gift shops, with the orange hair attached, and say things like ‘Aye, I ken noo.’ It just won’t do.

Incidentally, ‘Spaniard’ is getting a bit of a ‘feel’ to it, too, as a word, don’t you think? A bit like ‘Scotchman’ or ‘Chinaman,’ if you know what I’m saying.

On which subject: Beijing. Yes indeed.

And my point is?

One thing that did catch me out, though, and quite recently, was an item on the news.

An actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, was talking about acting, and how bad it was that actors from ethnic minorities didn’t have many opportunities in the UK. “I think as far as coloured actors go,” he said, “It gets really different in the UK, and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in America] than in the UK, and that’s something that needs to change.”

What happened next was that there was a storm of complaints. People were saying how outrageous it was, and how shameful, and they were saying that something should be done about it. People on Twitter were getting very worked up, apparently, and doing things with hashtags and so on. (I don’t know what a hashtag is, exactly, or what exactly you are meant do with one, but I feel that using the term it makes me sound sort of clued-up and happening, in a ‘disco vicar’ sort of way). But the interesting thing was this: what caused the storm was not the disgraceful lack of opportunities, but the fact that Cumberbatch, in saying how bad it was, had used the word ‘coloured’. To talk about people. Which is a bad thing now, apparently, because the name’s been changed and it’s only acceptable if you add the word ‘of.’ As in ‘people of colour.’  

Anyway, Cumberbatch made the profoundest, most abject apologies for this. He said that he was ‘devastated,’ and that he ‘felt like an idiot.’ Thank goodness he didn’t say ‘negro,’ eh? Like Martin Luther King used to.

But the Twitter storm continued nevertheless.

“Just when was it okay to use the word coloured?” one user thundered. Or indeed tweeted.

Now, there are a couple of answers to that particular question, as it happens, and one is quite a precise and factual one. It’s just not the answer the Twitterers want to hear. The answer is ‘it’s been okay to use the word coloured since February 12th, 1909’. This was when a group of Civil Rights activists got together in New York City to set up the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which still uses the phrase in its name to this day, and which today has some 300,000 members.

So there’s your answer, persons of tweetness. That’s when. Alright?

The other answer is the complete opposite of this, and it is the answer that many twitterers would be far happier to hear. This answer is ‘Never! It has never been acceptable to in any way to use the word ‘coloured’ to describe human beings, and shame on you for even thinking such a thing.’

It is possible to hold both of these things to be true. Without denying the existence of the NAACP, or the history of the acceptable use of the word ‘coloured’ for more than a century, it is possible to will yourself to believe that it is not now, and never has been, acceptable to talk about coloured people on television or in polite conversation. It just takes a bit of mental editing and compartmentlisation. George Orwell summed up how you do it, in his book 1984:

“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them…To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient…to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.”

Doublethink, he called it. There seems to be rather a lot of it around these days. It is, apparently, the new black.

About Warwick Cairns

Warwick is Press Officer of the British Weights & Measures Association and author of About The Size Of It: the Common-Sense Approach To Measuring Things (PanMacmillan) and How to Stop Living Dangerously (PanMacmillan). He has degrees from the University of Keele and Yale University. Born in Dagenham, Essex, he has lived many places, including in Africa and a Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, USA. He now resides with his family in Windsor, Berkshire, United Kingdom.