Celebrity Big Blunderbuss

These ‘racists’ would passionately, genuinely argue that they are not. Those who heard the insults would disagree. Neither would be completely correct, however. Like a blunderbuss, no matter how careful and ‘genuine’ the aim, you will always hit something you did not intend. It is a kind of second-degree racism, with Indian viewers caught in the cross-fire of a domestic spat.

Of course, I never ever watch Celebrity Big Brother, full as it is of vacuous has-beens whining about their personal life. However, yesterday evening I just happened to walk into the living room, when a freak bolt of lightning turned the TV over to Channel 4, at coincidentally the exact moment when I tripped over a wild hamster. Prostrate on the floor, I randomly caught sight of this strange TV programme out of the corner of my eye. I leapt up, and immediately turned it off after only an hour and half viewing.

shilpa shetty cryingI could not help rubber-necking the foreigners’ car-crash into the British class system. Neither A-Teamer Dirk Benedict, or Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, sees anything wrong in laughing at the poor diction of some of the other housemates. They did not seem appreciate that their comments are seen as snobbish. Nor did not understand when those ‘down-to-earth’ housemates predictably turned sour, mercilessly criticising Shilpa’s naive attempt at roasting a chicken.

It is a shame some of the comments flung in her direction were disparaging to India and its culture, prompting accusations of racism: apparently over 10,000 people have now complained.

Its interesting that the celebrity version of Big Brother should prove a microcosm of the country as a whole, an illustration of the race debate in the UK. What is crucial here is that the offenders (in this case, Jo, Jade and Danielle) genuinely do not believe they are racist. They are not picking on Shilpa because she is Indian. Her transgressions, such as they are, seem real to them, and crucially nothing to do with her race or nationality.

When so-called culture wars periodically blitz the media, the examples of cultural conflict are stark, dealing as they so often do with life-changing issues such as marriage, sex, or the role of religion in political decision-making. They are noticeable. What goes unremarked are the tiny issues, the little differences, than can turn two people off each other. There is nothing wrong with using spices in food, or using your hands to eat it. This is part of Shilpa’s culture. Jade, Jo, and Danielle, who are ignorant of Shilpa’s culture, do not understand this. When they criticise her, they do not for one moment believe their comments have anything to do with her being Indian. They think they are criticising her. They do not realise the subjectivity of their criticism. They do not even realise that they are actually criticising a part of Shilpa’s culture, and others by association. The ‘racism’, such as it is, lies in these ignorances (I would prefer to call it an ‘unwitting prejudice’).

Whether one has any time for the ‘racism’ charge depends on whether you believe the invective levelled at Shilpa was directed at her alone, or her cultural practices in general. Those who said them would passionately, genuinely argue that the former is true. Those who heard them, would say the latter. Neither would be completely correct, however. Like a blunderbuss, no matter how careful and ‘genuine’ the aim, you will always hit something you did not intend. The problem is caused by shooting the invective in the first place! It is a kind of second-degree racism: the Indian viewers of Celebrity Big Brother have been caught in the cross-fire of a domestic spat. They have a genuine greivance, even if the mens rea is absent.

The same argument can, I think, be applied to the remarks about the accents of certain housemates. You can appear to be a snob without realising it. But just like culinary practices, the way someone speaks is a matter of culture and upbringing. To laugh at it is to laugh at everyone who does it.

We’re all guilty of second order prejudice on some level, because it is impossible to know what is going on everywhere in the world, or how everyone lives. The key to reducing this, is to make an effort to learn more about the people who you live with (whether you live in a multi-ethnic democracy, or the Big Brother House). To avoid learning more about others, or to declare it unnecessary, is the real prejudice.

India actually has its own version of the TV show, called Bigg Boss. I haven’t seen it myself, but those who have tell me it is actually more interesting, with nudity and frolicking at a minimum, and the contestants getting stuck into political debates instead.

Perhaps I am being too diplomatic. Apparently slurs like “Paki Bitch” are being bandied about. That’s first order racism, and certainly didn’t make the cut yesterday evening.

9 thoughts on “Celebrity Big Blunderbuss”

  1. Good piece. I haven’t watched big brother in years (honest) but I also thought the debate was intersting as a microcosm of modern Britian. A chav majority beeing looked down on by a liberal minority who don’t understand them and seek to demonise what to them is normal behaviour in this case by branding it racist. Then the sound of liberal hadwringing with the realisation that not everyone buys into the touchy feely muticultural nirvana.
    On a psychological level it is female competition writ large, as an attractive, refined, educated Indian female becomes the bete noir of a group of undeducated, coarse, white chavettes.
    I though the dialogue about Indians “eating with their hands” was hialarious – have these people never seen the great british public eating a McDonalds, or a KFC ??

  2. Excellent post, Rob. Good to see some of the complexity unpicked.

    I don’t think it matters though, whether the invective levelled at Shilpa was directed at her specifically, or at her whole culture. Where her cultural practices are the source of the invective, it is both she and her culture that are being attacked. What I mean is, if you think it’s legitimate to attack someone (personally and specifically) for something which in fact is just a matter of cultural difference, then you must have some objection to the difference in question, and by extension, the culture that contains it. On the other hand, of course, if Shilpa really is so educated and erudite, might she not have predicted that ignorant uneducated (even if through no fault of their own) chav scum will not react sympathetically to the complexities of cultural differences. You could say she brought it on herself, though I have to confess, I didn’t actually see it.

    As for class prejudice, it appears to me that the chav scum are at least equally guilty on that score. But it is worse than that, because, as you say, Rob, “they do not realise the subjectivity of their criticism”. If we forgive them this, either because they are uneducated, or because they are unintelligent, I think that bodes ill for society, for democracy and for equality. No power without responsibility.

    And on the subject of objecting to chav accents, I think as long as they are, as BB seems to be demonstrating very nicely, an indicator of ignorance and wilfull stupidity, then I see no problem with that whatsoever.

    When people wish to insult eachother, they often pick on something superficial (eg cooking practices or accents) as a marker, or a short-hand if you will, for what it is they are really objecting to.

    BB has done a good thing by highlighting how utterly awful “normal” people in the uk actually are. This is what our country has come to, this is the legacy of Thatcher and Blair. And has nobody noticed the hideous post-po-mo irony of putting a previous BB contestant in as a “celebrity”?

    I complained to Ofcom not about the racism, though that does breach the broadcasting code, however you construe the details of it, but about the ethical question of putting someone who is apparently mentally subnormal on the television for entertainment. I am talking about Jade of course. Because that is what it amounts to. Laughing at the idiot. Only I don’t think Shilpa is laughing. I heard she was crying.

  3. I am dismayed at all this because as previous people have commented – how we British love to watch car crashes, rows, fights etc etc, the more horrid the better and when TV programmers decide on their schedule they know they will get the high viewing figures, the more shocking the programme.

    If this was happening in a school – ie a group ganging up on someone, you would weigh up the situation as to how the person perceived to be bullied was handling it – did they have any part in what was going on with their friends etc and then deal with it, but I, for one, would want to stop it – also if it happened in the work place. I wouldn’t hide around the corner and “enjoy” watching it going on but this is in fact what is happening. Shame on us all and it is encouraging that so many complained.

    This brings me to Anne Robinson – again (poor lady and her Weakest Link programme) but people enjoy watching her taking the mickey out of people and trading insults – children watching will think this is ok and for them to do it, in my view, is not. She is an intelligent woman? who, I am sure,could find a better and more acceptable angle for her quiz.

    I agree with Rob, this is envy and bitching and Shilpa happens to be Indian. If she had been Catherine Zeta Jones, I dare say there would be snide remarks about sheep and only being able to cook welsh cakes.

    I think that most Indians living in India, if they had been able to watch the programme rather than to view edited pieces, would probably agree with Rob too, so sorry but maybe the media are to blame again.

    Maybe it will show Channel 4 that BB has had its day. They want people to be nasty and that is NOT healthy

  4. I would like to add my congratulations to Rob on an excellent piece. I think to say there is second degree racism in what has been going on in CBB is correct. But I think it is a pity that it is the racism which has caused all the controversy when bullying is the real issue and how the show itself sets up the conditions to promote this.
    I think Clarice was a bit harsh in her post using the word scum about Jade but she was quite right to point out the questionable ethics of putting Jade into the BB house when the Channel four bosses knew there was a risk of her being laughed at all over again.
    And as for Anne Robinson what does it say about the British public that we give her airtime when she is so unpleasant. I know people say that the contestants know what they are letting themselves in for but this is no excuse.

  5. Hello GR. When I used the phrase “chav scum”, I didn’t really mean that I think Jade is scum. I was using the colloquialism to refer to the chavest-of-the-chav, so to speak, the excessive aggression, the inverse snobbery, and the shameless lack of vocabulary and logical thought, let alone the general ignorance. “chav scum” is a shorthand for all this. I don’t think it bodes well for society if such people are considered acceptable members of it.

    I would also like to add that I think Jade’s treatment by Davina on leaving the house was utterly abominable. If we really are so against bullying, how can we justify her being villified and humiliated like that? Maybe it’s the only language she listens to, but I still think it was sadistic and cruel, not to mention hypocritical.

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