Brendan O’Neill

Let’s calm down about Amber Rudd’s ‘coloured’ gaffe

Let's calm down about Amber Rudd’s ‘coloured’ gaffe
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If you want to see the detrimental impact political correctness has had on our society, you could do worse than examine the scandal swirling around Amber Rudd today. Rudd is being mauled for using the undoubtedly antiquated word ‘coloured’ to describe Diane Abbott. On Radio 2, she referred to Abbott as a ‘coloured woman’. Cue fury. ‘Told you the Tories were racist’, everyone is saying, to such an extent that Rudd has now issued an apology. But here’s the thing: when she used the word ‘coloured’, Rudd was speaking out against racism. She was condemning it. Does the context of people’s words, their actual meaning, count for nought now?

It seems so. Apparently it doesn’t matter that Rudd was defending Diane Abbott. She was discussing the abuse politicians receive when she said:

‘It’s worst of all if you’re a coloured woman. I know that Diane Abbott gets a huge amount of abuse.’ 

She clearly wasn’t using ‘coloured’ in a derogatory way. She was not using it to denote Diane Abbott’s or anybody else’s inferiority. On the contrary, she was making the opposite point to those people in the past who loved to segregate white people and ‘coloured’ people — she was saying people should not be mistreated on the basis of their skin colour.

And yet still she is hounded and shamed. Still she is accused of being racist. Even though she was challenging racism! A similar thing happened to Labour defector Angela Smith a couple of weeks ago. On BBC 2's Politics Live, Smith was saying that racism is bad. Half way through her comment she sought to illustrate the racist outlook by saying that some people judge others by the colour of their skin, looking down at them as having a ‘funny tinge’. Her language was clumsy, but she clearly was not saying people of a different race are bad. She was saying that some imbeciles out there treat non-whites differently. I know she was doing this because I was sat next to her at the time and I was thinking to myself: ‘She isn’t pulling this off.’ Lo, she garbled her words, tried to backtrack, and all hell broke loose. She was also accused of racism, this MP who, like Rudd, was speaking out against racism.

Then there’s Benedict Cumberbatch. The most PC actor on earth. No one could accuse Cumberbatch of racism, right? Wrong. A few years ago he likewise committed the speech crime of referring to black British actors as ‘coloured’. Again, it mattered not a jot that he was speaking in favour of these actors and arguing that they deserved greater equality and opportunity in the British film world. No, all that mattered is that he made a linguistic error. He was slammed and eventually he apologised too. Time and again, people’s intentions, their beliefs, are ignored, while their passing words are leapt upon and obsessed over.

I’m sure that part of the problem for Rudd and Cumberbatch is that it can be hard to keep up with 'correct speak' on racial matters. It changes frequently. I know some older people who still say ‘coloured’ and it makes me bristle because I, like most people, use the word ‘black’. But apparently I should use the phrase ‘people of colour’. Which sounds to me like an elongated version of ‘coloured’, but who am I to judge? Media people use the word ‘Bame’, meaning ‘black and minority ethnic’, which I hate. It sounds so inhuman. And I have never met a normal person — ‘normal’ meaning those who work outside of the media and politics — who says ‘Bame’. Or ‘LBTQ’, for that matter. Or ‘genderfluid’. Or even ‘people of colour’. I think the tut-tutters of the Twittersphere who rail against people who use the wrong words have no idea how bonkers they sometimes sound to the outside world. Guys, no one speaks like you. 

This is what political correctness has done: it has created a bad-faith society. A society in which we constantly second-guess people, wonder about their real intent, gleefully latch on to any gaffe they make as proof that, deep down, they are racist scum. We actually welcome slip-ups for they allow us to say: ‘Ta-da! You are a dreadful person and I am a good person for calling you out.’ It’s so nasty. Here’s the bottom line: Amber Rudd, Angela Smith and Benedict Cumberbatch were all speaking out against racism when they used outdated or silly words. And that’s how we should judge them. That’s how all civilised societies should judge people: by what they believe, by their character, not by their occasional mess-ups. PC has made us unforgiving and cruel and convinced us that everyone is racist — even those who are publicly denouncing racism. That really is PC gone mad.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

Topics in this articleSociety