Howard Jacobson: There's all the difference between a silly lad and a murderous racist

The palace is still no place to acquaint a boy with the ironic locutions of the street
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The Independent Online

Yid, Nigger, Paki, Coon, Chink, Paddy, Raghead, Kike, Sambo, Honky Faggot, Jewboy, Taffy, Bulldyke, Zionist – the list is endless. So? Put 'em together and what have you got? Bippety boppity boo.

We were not appalled when Prince Harry went to a fancy dress party as a Nazi (a good place for a Nazi uniform – on a dickhead at a piss-up), and we are not appalled by what he called his pal Ahmed Raza Khan. And had he called him "Sheeny" or "Hymie"? We would not have been appalled by that either. Not in the context. And please don't tell me contexts are no excuse. Without a context we understand nothing. A context explains an intent. And without an intent we understand nothing either. A word on its own tells you absolutely zilch. Words are innocent. Words await what the user means to do with them, and then await interpretation at the other end. They are no more malicious in themselves than alcohol is inebriated in the bottle. Only where people go about in primitive terror of gods and goblins do words have the magic properties of evil. And we are not such people, are we? We are liberated from superstition. We don't think a word is imbued with malevolence no matter who employs it, how he employs it, where he employs it, to whom he employs it, and regardless of what he hopes will be the consequence of his using it.

Phrases such as "Kill Jews", which you can find sprayed on walls in north London right now, or the latest catchy Dutch refrain "Hamas, Hamas joden aan het gas" – that's "Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas", if your Dutch isn't up to scratch – are toxic not by virtue of the words they contain but by virtue of the actions they propose. Haroon Siddique, writing in The Guardian believes we must call a racist a racist. "I was shocked when I heard that [Harry] had used the word 'Paki'. But what surprised me even more were the attempts to play down the nastiness of the term or to pass it off as a term of endearment."

This is a circular argument.If the term is in itself without exception "nasty", if nastiness inheres in it as surely as bacteria inhere in shit, then of course we should not allow it to be passed off as an endearment. But the position Mr Siddique is offering to counter holds that there is nothing intrinsically and unequivocally vile in the word "Paki", that it all depends on the whys and wheres, a position he himself adopts later in the same piece when he concedes, "I admit I have some very close friends who would jokingly call me 'Paki' in a certain context and I would not take umbrage, but they would say it to my face – not behind my back (as far as I know) or while I was asleep."

There it is then. Once context and personality are "admitted", as they must be, that's an end to the intrinsicality argument. If the word is vile and only vile and vile wherever and whenever it is used, then Haroon Siddique must take umbrage no matter how jokingly it is employed, and regardless of whether he wakes or sleeps. But he cites an exception identical to the exception which those who defend Harry cite. The Harry defence is that he used the word "Paki" in the context of friendly joshing. So what's the difference? That Harry is white? That "Paki" is for internal use only? That no white – particularly no privileged white – can be a friend of someone who comes from Pakistan?

I know and understand that line of thought. Jews think the same. We are licensed, exceptionally, to call each other what we like. And without doubt there are things I have been called by Jewish friends I would not take from non-Jewish enemies. But isn't that only because I know them to be my enemies and because the words they use they use as missiles?

It happened to me once in Melbourne that a drunken non-Jewish Australian acquaintance (if that's not a tautology) climbed into my bedroom hoping to steal the woman with whom I was then living. Why he didn't just ask, I don't know. Alcohol, I suppose. In fact he found me alone in my bed. "You bloody Yid," he said. I won't pretend I wasn't frightened. Such things don't happen every night, even in Australia. "Go home, Lee," I said. He wouldn't. He sat on my bed and started stroking my nose. "You Yid," he said again, and then suddenly he bit me. On the nose. Not a savage bite, though his teeth marks remained for several weeks. But still, not an action you welcome. And yet there was something about the way he did it that reminded me of a caress. A bite is not unlike a word. It is innocent in itself. We bite in lovemaking. And this was a kind of lovemaking. "You Yid," he said again, before offering me a handkerchief to dry my nose and descending the way he'd come.

Was that a racist attack? No. Should he have done it? No. Was I offended? No. Would it have been reasonable for a third party to be offended on my behalf – a vigilante of the political decencies, say, a protector of the Jewish people, a personal-space-violation agent? No. It was between Lee and me. We brewed the dramatic context up between us. As Harry did with his friend Ahmed Raza Khan.

I would be surprised if part of that context wasn't royal ineptitude. Harry had some of the Charlie knocked out of him by his mother, but the palace is still no place to acquaint a boy with the ironic locutions of the street. And now transplant those palace anachronisms to a barracks where everyone is playing the game of being men. No man really knows how to play the man game. The conventions bemuse even the most laddish of lads, which is why they're always fighting. So Harry's attempts were bound to end in tears. But a clown is not necessarily a racist.

A girl was thrown off Big Brother a couple of years ago for using the "N" word. But it was perfectly clear her only crime was gaucherie; she was a middle-class white girl who wanted to show she had mastered street talk, an ambition (whose poet is Ali G) for which the word is sycophancy, not racism. There is a terrifying amount of truly murderous racist hatred out there. It is a matter of life and death that we learn to tell the difference.

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