Harry and the 'Paki': why all the fuss?
For once I find myself half on Prince Harry’s side. I realise that he has not got an entirely clean political record and I can’t bear the flutter of admiration for our ‘hero’ as soon as the young man sets foot anywhere near a war zone.
But this outrage about the ‘Paki’ video is all a bit muddled. And it’s got the wrong target.
The video is, of course, frightful in its blokeish way; and it reveals exactly the kind of juvenile humour that you might expect from a group of young army officers (it’s probably a reflection of the kind of camaraderie that allows you to go on and kill people when you have to – so perhaps we shouldn’t entirely knock it?).
That said, I rather enjoyed Harry’s spoof phone call in front of his friends to his granny (HM The Queen). “God Save You” he finished. This showed a certain self-ironising that I hadn’t expected. I’d always assumed that the royals took all this mumbo jumbo completely seriously. May be they wont be so upset when we decide to abolish it all, then.
But what was so offensive?
The worse bit by far was saying to one of his mates that he looked like a ‘rag-head’ (a terminus popularis for a man wearing a turban or middle-eastern head-dress). The idea that our boys are going into the Middle East calling the locals ‘rag-heads’ is not nice. But there is also the old military dilemma underlying this. If you want young men to go out and kill other people (which I certainly don’t), then you probably do have to encourage them to dehumanise the enemy in just this way.
But what about the use of ‘Paki’? It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction and move from ‘racism in the army’ (which there certainly is) to this bit of laddish joking as an insidious example of it. But we have to think a bit harder. Words, on their own, are not racist. It is the context and intention that makes them so – and crude literalism to think otherwise.
Go into a bar and push in front of someone saying ‘Out of my way, Paki’ is likely to be racist. But even the worst racist, or most discriminatory, terms can be diffused by re-appropriating them for friendly use. Think of ‘queer’, for example, which was unusable in my world 20 years ago – and is now the gay movement’s term of choice. Or even more strikingly ‘black’, which as a child I was taught never, ever to use. A few months ago I had used ‘negro’ in something I was writing, and the American editor corrected it to ‘black’.
Shouldn’t we be aiming at a world in which ‘Paki’ could be a friendly term.
Whether Harry’s was a neutral or friendly use of the terms, as he claims, is impossible to know. But until we hear from Ahmed, if we do, I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The fuss provoked by the News of the World is playing on a simple-minded and conveniently simple sense that all you have to do is get the words right, and we’ll be OK. Tick-box political correctness, in other words.
Meanwhile it has provoked surely only half-sincere abasement and apologies from Prince Harry and the royal press office. As the husband said – ‘This video was made three years ago, he hasn’t been ‘sorry’ for three years, has he?”
No, we don’t imagine Harry waking up every morning since 2006 feeling embarrassment at having called Ahmed a ‘Paki’.