Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: What fallout from Eamonn Holmes 'uppity' reference to Meghan Markle teaches us is that whatever you say, say nothing

After broadcaster Eamonn Holmes was told not to use the word 'uppity' again because of supposed racist overtones, Eilis O'Hanlon wonders if there are any words that will not cause outrage to the politically correct

Eamonn Holmes
Eamonn Holmes
Meghan Markle
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Dictionaries used to get bigger with each edition as new words were added. In future they're going to get shorter as more and more words are removed for fear of offending someone.

The latest one is 'uppity'. ITV this week denied that Good Morning presenter Eamonn Holmes was reprimanded after using the word on air to describe Her Royal High-and-Mightyness Meghan Markle, but they do admit that he and his team were spoken to and warned not to utter the offending 'U' word again.

What, you might well wonder, is wrong with uppity anyway? Apparently it has racial connotations because whites in the southern states of America sometimes used it to refer to black people who, in their eyes, had got a little too big for their boots.

As a result the rest of the world is now banned from using it too even, if like Eamonn, they grew up in Northern Ireland, where uppity means nothing of the sort.

Should people in other countries really stop using certain words because they have unfortunate undertones elsewhere?

There are crackers in China called Only Puke and a Romanian tea with the name Urinal. Words mean different things in different places and, last time I checked, this wasn't Alabama.

What's crazy is that this entire palaver - let's called it #Uppitygate - was based on one complaint. Not hundreds. Not dozens. Not even two. Just one. One single person with nothing better to do objected, and that was enough to send Eamonn Holmes to the naughty step despite no evidence that he's ever harboured racist thoughts, let alone expressed them.

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That's all it takes now. You make one misstep and the thought police are hammering at the door. A bunch of over-sensitive female celebrities recently decided that 'bossy' was a sexist word and tried to get that banned too.

Tory politician Michael Gove was once criticised for admitting that he had 'welshed' on a deal. The good people of Wales were said to be mightily insulted. In truth, someone probably just decided to get upset on their behalf.

The town council in Bideford in Devon even debated recently whether to change signs that described it as the 'Little White Town' - so named for centuries because of the colour of the buildings - in case it was considered racist.

You probably can't even call it 'political correctness gone mad' anymore, in case that stigmatises people with mental health problems.

To be honest, it's hard to find that many documented examples of 'uppity' being used in the racist way that Belfast boy Eamonn Holmes was supposed to know all about and avoid. There are plenty of people online saying it's racist, but remarkably few instances of it being used in an unquestionably racist way.

Most have nothing to do with race at all. For example, viewers of Netflix drama The Crown, now back for a third season, won't be astonished to find Princess Margaret referred to as uppity by her biographer. There is also a scattering of references to 'rich girls with their fancy clothes and uppity ways' and 'uppity tabloid editors'. But who needs facts when they've already decided they'd rather be outraged?

The point is that the battle is already well and truly lost. Once a word has been declared to be racist, even if it isn't, then it's not possible to use it without someone, somewhere getting hysterical - though, as it happens, you're not allowed to use that word either, because it comes from the Greek word for uterus and was used historically to put down women.

And maybe that's the way it should be. If marginalised groups find particular words hurtful then they arguably shouldn't be used too loosely. Just don't pretend that it makes the slightest difference to the amount of real racism in the world.

If you're the sort of bigot who believes that black people should know their place, or a misogynist who wants women to get back to the kitchen, then it won't alter your hateful opinions to be banned from using a word. You'll just find other ways to say the same thing, until people notice that those words have also started taking on negative connotations and call for them to be added to the forbidden list as well.

That's why when a rival politician referred to US President Barack Obama as 'arrogant' some years back he was accused of racism, because by saying that Obama thought he was smarter than other people he must have been implying that, as a black man, he had no right to think he was better than anybody.

The chances are that the man in question just thought Barack Obama was, you know, a bit arrogant. What other word are you supposed to use about people with an over-inflated sense of their own cleverness and importance?

It's not even negative terms which are deemed to be problematic. There's an episode of Frasier in which the title character's father describes Asian children as good at spelling and is told that he mustn't use racial stereotypes. "Not even positive ones?" he cries in exasperation. "Would somebody please tell me the rules?" Frasier's dad has stumbled into a world he just doesn't understand any more.

We all know that feeling.

Meanwhile, Asian students do so well in exams that the entrance criteria for the top US universities is now deliberately fixed to stop too many of them getting in, but no one seems to care about that injustice because political correctness is not about doing anything worthwhile for marginalised people, it's just about making you, as the complainant, feel morally superior by getting someone else into trouble for using the wrong word.

Even if, as in the case of #Uppitygate, the person using it didn't mean anything racist by it.

Eamonn Holmes can't have been surprised by what happened. He observed a few years ago that it was becoming an increasingly PC world full of boring people on TV just reading what's on the autocue and terrified of saying anything different. As a grumpy, middle aged white man, it was only a matter of time before he found himself in the sights of the permanently offended. And maybe he only has himself to blame.

Last year on This Morning, he invited on a campaigner who objected to the new orthodoxy that any man who says he's a woman must immediately be accepted as a woman with access to female-only spaces. Eamonn was very disapproving of her point of view and ticked her off for being unkind to transgender people.

That's what happens when you suck up to the social justice warriors. Eventually, they come for you too.

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