3 May 2011

History: tails like pigs
Derogatory comments about other people have a long history, and putting aside the ancient Greeks and their mockery of the people of Abdera, let me begin with a monk of Peterborough Abbey in the thirteenth century rudely describing Norfolk and its inhabitants as “terra sterilis et gens vilissima” and among other insults he says that the people are stupid and that the devil had defecated over the place. A man from the county, John of St Omer, wrote a riposte to defend the inhabitants (Wright 1838, 93-106 and 1875, 181). Wright also mentions Gotham, Pevensey, Stockton, and Rochester as towns and people in England mocked in writing in the middle ages: indeed “there were very few countries which did not possess a town or district, the inhabitants of which were celebrated for stupidity, or for roguery, or for some other ridiculous or contemptible quality” (Wright 1875, 232). He suggests the Rochester abuse was really about the English generally, probably written in France; the English are said to have tails like pigs; yes, it’s that sophisticatedly witty (1875, 182).

History overflows with disparagement of other peoples, name calling, mainly about perceived defects in their appearance, habits, and intelligence. Staying with England and with meant insults, Henry VIII, angry at the Catholic rebellion of the Pilgrimage of Grace, sneered that Lincolnshire as a county was “the most brute and bestial in the whole realm”. William of Malmesbury, who described the Cornish Britons of tenth-century Exeter as contaminatae, also described the Northumbrians as a “savage” race (Malmesbury; Thomas 2003, 271). The denigration of places and peoples is not new; there is a very long history to disparagement of groups of people and transnational abuse.

That’s the past; what about today? The denigration of groups and places with its long history reaches into the present and across national borders and it isn’t all just friendly banter between neighbours. However, I shall focus on the local not transnational.

Last year there was a complaint about disparaging comments made about the Cornish. The comment mentioned publicly in the complaint (‘inbred’) suggests there has been no advance in wit since the medieval pigs’ tails. It isn’t just Cornwall of course, far from it; in March I read this about Norfolk. Someone from Sheppey in Kent complained about journalists reporting a crime: “they made us out to be inbred yokels” (Collins 2010).

Back to Cornwall today: there is currently a facebook site, ‘I hate Cornwall,’ which largely denigrates life in Cornwall and abuses Cornish people. There are other ‘I hate’ facebook sites naming England, Scotland, Wales, and elsewhere. How should we respond to such derogatory comments that are made?

Before answering that I first wish to briefly look at the scale and nature of the problem.

What sort of problem
What sort of problem is this here? I do not believe that spontaneous insults are widespread in or about Cornwall. There appears to be in the media and in speech some limited amount of denigration but I am not aware of random insults in the streets against Cornish people; that does happen to some of the visibly different elsewhere. However, I think very much the most of public comments about Cornwall are favourable; people generally have a liking for our county and its people. Understandably, some people take the unpleasant abuse to heart but its impact and extent should not be overstated.

It is legitimate to comment, robustly, on ideas and people’s behaviour. A large difficulty, however, is in distinguishing comment from joke from banter from abuse and wanton name calling from legitimate point ill or offensively expressed. Everyone will have their own irregular criterion about that, and their own irregular judgement about what is and is not acceptable, and I wonder whether equality organisations and police and magistrates are any better at this than the man on the omnibus? Another difficulty is that many comments are not intentionally offensive; the perception of the giver and the recipient can be different and it is not clear which should take precedence. Letting the recipient decide can create a tyranny of the too readily offended, letting the giver decide can create a tyranny of the too readily offensive. Offence, giving it or receiving it, can become a political weapon.

Free speech and Tamora
Nevertheless, what should we do about very uncivil comments which can indeed be or seem impolite, irritating, and offensive, likely to make some people angry, especially if apparently directed at groups rather than ideas? In effect, name calling.

This is not just about Cornwall; it is about everywhere and what we mean by free speech. I deplore the rude comments but do not think they should be banned. I do not think intervention by the authorities ever resolves this sort of thing. Such intervention can seem heavy-handed and humourless and overcorrect and be indistinguishable from censorship and an attack upon free thought and expression, and I think our hard-won free speech does trump offensiveness. Humour and proportion, an appeal to good manners, above all a shrug of the shoulders are probably the best, most effective ways of handling these verbal problems, even the most egregious insults, about identity, around race and religion. The American model of free speech seems to me to be right on this. Perhaps a confident touch of Tamora, the eagle suffers little birds to sing (Titus Andronicus 4.4). Do we really wish to report people for saloon bar exchanges? Or punish the raw expression of anxieties, even if ill founded? I think we should remember that in a democracy there is no right not to be offended.

Nor do I think we should grit our teeth and cry free speech only when faced with the high-minded; we should protect the low too. Free speech is not only for ourselves and those who think like us and those views we disapprove of but can stomach.

Of course, meant threats of violence and meant incitement to it, and indeed other illegality, should be dealt with very firmly; and discrimination is a different matter which should certainly be stopped dead. However, here I am dealing with thought and speech, opinions, even uncivilly expressed, not actions or such threats or calls to action (or libel and slander); the distinction is very important. I should also try to distinguish threats and incitements that are meant and those that are not meant but are irresponsibly expressed. Responding to ‘inactive speech’ we should always beware of sledgehammers and oversensitivity in the rough and tumble of life. I think there are too many sledgehammers and far too much oversensitivity and too many authoritarian assaults on free expression in Britain today, worsened by Labour’s misjudgements, carried forward by the Tory Libdem coalition, around the misbelief that you could get communal harmony, social cohesiveness and social peace, by stopping mouths and curtailing freedom. I’d put it this way. I’d much rather not be insulted but me personally and my ideas and my identity being abused, insulted, offended, mocked, disparagingly stereotyped, sneered at, and satirised is a price well worth paying for democracy and free speech in Britain. For reasons of free speech and Tamora pragmatism, we should disregard the inactive comments on facebook or elsewhere.

I have focused on derogatory actual written or spoken comments about groups and places in this post. Let me mention that there are other forms of expression which disturb some people. Burning books, burning poppies on Armistice Day, burning flags… my response to all is libertarian. I disapprove but support their right to express themselves freely and of course my right to counter-protest or to ignore them. And then there’s the whole worlds of art and literature…


COLLINS Michael (2010) ‘Strangers in their own land’ in Prospect magazine February 2010

Daily Telegraph 29 January 2010

MALMESBURY William of (12th century) Gesta regum Anglorum (Chronicle of the kings of the English)

SUTCLIFFE Tom ‘Tolerance doesn’t mean removing the intolerable’ in Independent 12 April 2011

THOMAS Hugh M (2003) The English and the Normans: ethnic hostility, assimilation, and identity 1066-c1220 OUP

WRIGHT Thomas (1838) Early mysteries and other Latin poems of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries London. Includes a Latin text of the two poems. There is an English translation by R Howlett in Norfolk Antiquarian Miscellany (1883, 364-382).

WRIGHT Thomas (1875) A history of caricature and grotesque in literature and art London

Sticks and stones may break my bones
But calling never hurt me