Name-calling becomes insulting depending on who says it and who's the target

From Jeremy Corbyn to David Cameron, they all get called different names by the media, but how to check your target's privilege

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The Independent Online

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but being called "a virus" by the general secretary of a mid-sized union? That really is beyond the pale. When Liz Kendall appeared on Newsnight last week she said the CWU's description of Blairites was "offensive", but then it's far from the only potentially offensive term in the air of late.

Political commentators continue to compete over ways to dismiss Jeremy  Corbyn supporters as “morons” or  “idiots”; David Cameron referred to migrants trying to reach Britain as “a swarm”, and the Hollywood actor James Woods is currently suing an anonymous individual for calling him a “cocaine addict” on Twitter. In fact, @abelisted also called Woods “a ridiculous scum clown-boy”, but that term, while arguably more offensive, is apparently not actionable.

After years of tough talk and turned cheeks, society has arrived at a point where the power of language is widely acknowledged. We know that words can hurt feelings, incite violence and even shape culture, and so racial, sexist or disablist slurs are no longer considered acceptable in public discourse – with the exception of Top Gear, obviously. Most would consider this a positive development, yet, while some words seem to have secured a permanent place on the banned list, we still aren’t entirely in agreement. 

In the new, much-bemoaned “culture of offence”, when is taking issue with a choice of words brave and righteous? And when is it creating an unnecessary fuss which only distracts from the real issue? In deciding what’s OK to say and what isn’t, the nuance of language matters. Anyone with a full understanding of the history of the N-word for instance, will understand why a journalist like me might decide not to spell it out in full. But that isn’t all. It also matters who’s using the insult, and who’s the target. What is the balance of power between the two? And, crucially, what opportunity do the insulted have to give as good as they get?

When, say, an official of a mid-sized union calls Blairites a virus, Blairite MPs can expect to be invited on Newsnight to express their outrage and argue their case. That argument may even receive more coverage than the initial statement, as was the case with Kendall Vs the CWU. It’s an entirely different matter, however, when the PM describes migrants as a “swarm” in a nationally televised interview. The human targets of this dehumanising insult will generally be too busy fleeing for their lives to issue a swift rebuttal.

Happiness is ... being like me

Feeling a bit down lately? Richard Branson has some advice. He’s one of several hugely successful, wealthy and good-looking individuals who have contributed to Dear Stranger, Letters on the subject of happiness, a new anthology published by Penguin and mental health charity Mind, in which they explain the baffling mystery of their contentedness. Because everybody hurts sometimes, even people whose lives are 10 times better than yours, you pathetic loser. Feeling happier yet?

There already exists a large body of how-to literature on success written by the successful, and while few are honest enough to acknowledge the role good fortune and inherited privilege play in reaching the top, you can at least see the logic behind their publication. There might even be a few useful, mimicable skills in there, amid all the self-congratulation.

But if the compilers of Dear Stranger were serious about making readers happy, surely they should have utilised some good old-fashioned schadenfreude. Otherwise it’s about as much use as that happiness tip traditionally passed from one stranger to another: cheer up, it might never happen.

Cara's PR offensive

Have you seen the trailer for Paper Towns, the new teen romance starring British model Cara Delevingne? It’s so mawkish it almost made me bring up my pic ’n’ mix. Clearly this is a film which could benefit from some pre-release good will, and that’s where the publicity campaign comes in.

Last week 20th Century Fox sent  Delevingne out to the US news programme Good Day Sacramento to make nice, smile a bit and talk up her latest creative endeavour. Instead she sulked. True, the anchors weren’t the most scintillating of conversationalists, but is a polite response to an inane interview question too much to ask? Isn’t that, y’know part of her job?

Algorithm method 

The sort of scientists quoted in Daily Mail fertility stories seem to think that childless women remain so out of wilful disobedience. No matter how many times they impress on us the importance of popping one out ASAP, women continue delaying motherhood until they’ve organised such trivialities as a place to live, a stable income, and a modicum of personal fulfilment.

But if women won’t listen to the experts, perhaps we’ll listen to a giant calculator? That’s how I’m visualising the “computer model” which has been wheeled out as the latest scare tactic in the war on wombs. It has crunched the data and come up with a series of hard, no-excuses-left deadlines. Only, as its creators acknowledge, it’s incapable of taking into account those all-important personal circumstances. Can women have it all? Computer says no.

Jihad's jilted Johns

We’ve heard plenty about teens from Europe travelling to Syria to become “jihadi brides”, but is there also an under-reported flip-side to this social media phenomenon?

Russian newspaper Life News reports the story of three “girls” (ages unknown) who conned Islamic State recruiters out of thousands of pounds by posing online as willing wives for martyrs. They claimed they lacked only the travel funds, but after money was wired to them, the girls simply closed their social media accounts and moved on to the next dupe. Clearly, when this scam was uncovered by the Chechen police, the girls should have been recruited to work for the secret service on six-figure salaries. Instead, they’ve been arrested, but the possibility remains that others like them are still at large, swindling those who thoroughly deserve to be swindled: “I don’t recall any precedent like this one in Chechnya,” said police officer Valery Zolotaryov. “Probably because nobody digs deep enough in that direction.”

Twitter: @MsEllenEJones