Prince Harry and the thought police
The implication behind the public hounding of ‘racist Harry’ is that all words, even those uttered in private, must be policed and punished.
Never again. That was the promise Prince Harry made nearly four years ago. Never again would he don a Nazi uniform. Never again would he, no matter how ignorantly, how unwittingly, mock the memory of the suffering of millions. And, perhaps most important of all, never again would he, the third-in-line to the British throne, embarrass its current incumbent with a clumsy assault on the great moral unquestionables of our age.
And, all in all, it had been going pretty well for the Captain James Hewitt impersonator. Not only had he become an officer in the British Army, he had also enjoyed a successful PR operation in Afghanistan, serving 10 weeks there without being shot at. But it could never last. This is Prince Harry we’re talking about, a young man all too capable of putting the dim before wit. So this weekend, Harry’s most daring venture into taboo territory yet was made public by the News of the World. Its front page said it all: ‘Harry’s racist video shame.’
Made when he was a 21-year-old trainee officer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in 2006, the video was sold to the News of the World by a ‘soldier’ over two years later. Two segments in particular have vexed our self-appointed moral guardians. One, filmed at a military airport, features Harry offering side-splitting commentary from behind the camera. ‘Ah, our little Paki friend… Ahmed’, he whispers, having seen his little Pakistani friend, Ahmed. Then, in another piece of footage, Harry’s glee at seeing his friend ‘Dan the man’ wearing a camouflage scarf on his head prompts the classic line: ‘Fuck me, you look like a raghead.’ (1)
Unfortunately for Harry, while he might be working for the one institution where the practice of shooting foreigners, especially ragheads, is often encouraged, calling people names is not acceptable these days. ‘In the great institutions, whether it’s the army or political parties, we have had to root out [racist] attitudes’, stated Conservative Party leader David Cameron yesterday, claiming that Harry’s videoed comments were ‘completely unacceptable’ (2). ‘Disturbing’ was the verdict of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (formerly the Commission for Racial Equality).
Yet, if the furore surrounding ‘Harry’s racist video shame’ reveals anything, it is not the omnipresence of racism but the pervasiveness of a new social etiquette. Long gone is the deference of yore, where royalty automatically commanded the respect of those who firmly knew their place. In its place stands the etiquette of uncertain times, where it is widely believed that someone somewhere might be offended by our words and actions, and where our social interactions are always potentially subject to external interpretation – and censorship.
It is worth remembering that Harry’s ‘racist video shame’ was an entirely private affair (which only happened to be captured on video) and that it consisted of little more than banter between peers. As such, it took place according to rules informally negotiated by a group of friends, which should not – indeed cannot – be shaped or corrected by external regulation. This is something that the media and political hounders of Harry have ignored. As professor of linguistics David Crystal said: ‘Among good friends or colleagues that kind of banter is perfectly normal. I’ve known friends from different ethnic backgrounds who regularly call themselves by names which would be hugely offensive taken out of context.’ (3)
Harry’s troubles touch upon the changed nature of the monarchy. The royals today are not to be accorded unquestioning respect, but rather are expected to embody an elite view of the correct way of behaving. Royals are to be role models for the populace. Hence PM Gordon Brown’s response to the Harry affair was to allude to the prince’s twenty-first century function as figurehead for the political class: ‘The British people are good enough to give someone who has actually been a role model for young people and who has done well fighting for our country… the benefit of the doubt.’ (4)
Harry’s error as a role model was to transgress the boundaries of what is deemed appropriate and what is not. That he did so in private is no excuse, it seems. For the nature of being a ‘role model’ is that the private is public, and personality is prostituted as public virtue. And since the private is permanently at risk of being made public, it was Harry’s folly to have said anything at all. Silly boy.
Possibly the most sinister aspect of this whole affair is the transformation wreaked on language itself, especially around the pejorative word ‘Paki’. This is, of course, a word bound up historically with unabashed racism. As the journalist Haroon Siddique explained, ‘being offended by the word today is not about lacking a sense of humour, but about the way it has almost invariably – in my experience – been deployed as a racial slur’ (5). But this is not a necessary connection – it is still just a word. And as such it can be used in different contexts, with different intents – whether jokingly, affectionately, or, indeed, insultingly or violently. In the Harry furore, however, it is treated as being apart from its speaker, as if it is possessed of some sort of magic and terrible power independent of its elocuter. Abdul Rahim of the Asian clothing brand ‘Pak 1’ spoke of the ‘unbelievable power of the word’ (6); on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Asian Labour MP Keith Vaz said the word was ‘unacceptable and wounding… we cannot use language of this kind even in jest’ (7).
To suggest that we can’t use a word ‘even in jest’ is to suggest that its meaning is out of our control, as if its invocation is capable of unleashing harm upon anybody who hears it. It is this belief that informs Sun columnist Anila Baig’s view that ‘Clarence House [the house of the Prince of Wales] should know better when it says the word “can” cause offence. No – it always causes offence.’ (8) By investing words with significance, indeed with a power beyond the ken of those using them, political and media commentators imply that these words are too powerful for public use. Language here is treated as something demonic, a set of magical incantations, with certain words more powerful than others. Context is nothing; intent is nothing; the robustness of the listener counts for nothing, either. In the face of powerful, always offensive words, there can only be one response: censorship. That is, official curbing of the use of certain words, and public punishment for those who use them. The Harry affair shows the obsession with policing language these days, even language used in jest and in private. Even if you don’t care much for Harry, or any of the other Windsors, you should be concerned about the thought-policing implications at play here.
The impetus is clear. By treating language as autonomous, as separate from its users, we make it an apparatus far too dangerous to be used without official guidance. Even if you’re royalty. Even if you’re at home, or just hanging out with friends.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Mick Hume said sending Prince Harry to Afghanistan was a PR operation, not a military necessity. Elsewhere, he said Harry was not the only one belittling the Holocaust. Tessa Mayes defended a Princess Diana documentary. spiked republished a cartoon which offended Spanish royals. Josie Appleton urged us to stop playing the ‘offence’ card. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.
(1) Harry’s racist video shame, News of the World, 11 January 2009
(2) Politicians condemn Harry over racist remarks, Guardian, 12 January 2009
(3) Outrage over Prince Harry’s ‘racist’ video, The Sun, 12 January 2009
(4) Prince’s apology genuine, says PM, BBC News, 12 January 2009
(5) Call a racist a racist, Guardian, 12 January 2009
(6) Outrage over Prince Harry’s ‘racist’ video, The Sun, 12 January 2009
(7) Prince’s apology genuine, says PM, BBC News, 12 January 2009
(8) Outrage over Prince Harry’s ‘racist’ video, The Sun, 12 January 2009
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