A Hampshire councillor received a few gasps and shocks this week when he associated flood prevention to a “ni**er in the woodpile”. The councillor clarified that his words didn’t have any unpleasant opinions tied to them and hoped that the journalists wouldn’t note the incident down – but sadly, they did.
Councillor Thierry did not intend to convey any inappropriate opinions about anyone in his constituency, but he has nonetheless landed himself in hot water. While I do not think that the words he used were the best (why not use needle in a haystack instead?), I hardly think that he should be subject to serious discipline or dismissal.
This is not the first time that an elderly councillor has been in trouble for things like this. In July, Councillor Peters of Stroud District Council used the same words as Councillor Thierry, again not in a racial context or to put forward racially discriminatory opinions, and was sent on a course on ethnicity, equality and diversity.
The thing to remember is the age of the councillors. Councillor Peters was seventy at the time of her mistake. In her apology she said that the phrase was used commonly when she was a child; this is where I think the real debate lies.
Morality and social norms change with time, and it is evident that what Britons believed at the turn of the last century is very different from what Britons believe today. Some things that we considered to be right and acceptable are now thought of as wrong, and vice versa.
When it comes to the law, I see no problem in punishing someone for something that we now consider to be wrong. Suppose that we were to outlaw voting for the Green Party this year; even if you have been voting for the Green Party all your life, it does not change the fact that it is wrong now – the law is the law, and the law dictates that voting for the Greens is illegal.
But Councillors Thierry and Peters were not breaking any laws; their words were not motivated by racial hatred and they did not intend to incite it anyway. They were merely using the words that once were acceptable in society but now are not, and though I do not think that they should be forgiven entirely, I do not think that we should leap so quickly to punish them.
When evidence arises to contradict what we believe, we can legitimately change our beliefs; but we cannot change the past. Only a fool would believe that the Earth is flat, because the evidence is so strongly against it, but only a fool would say that no one in history has ever believed that the Earth has flat. Similarly we cannot deny that the 1939 Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None was originally called Ten Little Ni**ers. We might not use that word now, and I wouldn’t expect a reprint of the book to have its original title, but it was used then and we can’t censor this fact out of history.
The book received the original title because its plot referred to the children’s rhyme ‘Ten Little Indians’, originally from Ireland. As times changed, children would sing about ‘Indians’, ‘injuns’, ‘negroes’ and ‘ni**ers’. The important thing is that we no longer promote the use of derogatory words and phrases. We rightly remind Councillors Thierry and Peters that we don’t use that kind of language anymore, for good reasons, but we do not throw Councillors Thierry and Peters into the stocks for the crime of growing up in a time when language was considered normal and perfectly reasonable. We should remember that in time we will not hear those words and phrases again – the only place in which they should be found should be the dictionaries, the encyclopaedias and the history books.