Was John Sargeant right to use the 'N-word' on the BBC?

John Sargeant’s performance on the BBC Newsnight Review show yesterday was bizarre. He managed to say the n-word twice during a discussion of Django Unchained, and later described parts of a TV programme as “American bullshit”.

Among those watching the show, some wondered whether the BBC would receive complaints. Others applauded Sargeant’s no-nonsense approach. I found his language tiresome.

Clearly, Sargeant has the right to say rude words. This blog has long argued that people who cause offence should not be punished in the law, however unpleasant their comments. With that disclaimer out of the way, we can ‘review the Review Show’ and ask whether Sargeant should have repeated that most notorious of racial epithets.

I think his first use of the word was only barely justified. He was describing the fact that it was used a great deal in Quentin Tarantino’s film, and that it was also used a great deal in America during the era of slavery. So, the word was used in context. In these discussions, I think we excuse the speaker, granting a kind of ‘qualified privilege’ because we know one has to say the word if one is to discuss it.

Nevertheless, that entire conversational route seemed banal. Tarantino movies are known for their uncompromising language and violence. They are famous for depicting people at their most base and visceral. That this particular auteur would allow his characters to continuously and casually utter the n-word is barely noteworthy! It would have been more remarkable if the word had been absent from the script. Sargeant’s wide-eyed amazement at this most obvious and necessary of directorial choices seemed extremely naïve. He is clearly not familiar with Tarantino’s œvre.

Later, however, Sargeant asked his fellow panellist Natalie Haynes outright: “Would you use the word nigger in Television”. This was unnecessary. Precisely because of directors like Tarantino, there is no real taboo on the n-word in broadcasting. It is of course discordant to hear it from Sargeant’s polished lips, but being controversial and iconoclastic just for the sake of it is really quite tedious.

Likewise with the use of “bullshit” later in the programme. Some viewers thought this was cool, but Sargeant immediately drew attention to his bad language, “I’m not supposed to say that!” He tittered.

Yawn. It would have been classier to plough on with his review of the piece, without breaking stride. Classier still would have been to pick a better, more incisive word. “Bullshit” is a blunderbuss of a phrase that has no place on a programme that hopes to provide a genuine insight into contemporary culture.

So, for the sake of a cheap frisson in place of an actual critic’s insight, John Sargeant has used the bullies’ word. Twice. Those who have had that word spat at them, who have experienced the word used with venom, as a threat, with the intent to demean and suppress, would have recalled those experiences as the former BBC man smirked.

Should Sargeant be allowed to say such words in TV? Yes. Should we think better of him for doing so? No.

Update

Padraig reminds me of another antiquated phrase in Sargeant’s vocabulary:

3 thoughts on “Was John Sargeant right to use the 'N-word' on the BBC?

  1. I was totally confused by jewess too. Who the hell says that?

    He didn’t bring up the N word use, and he rightly pointed out he lived through some of this, so he wasn’t simply pushing an expected attitude. (If he later says “me and my nigga Denzil” or similar, then perhaps I’ll have to take this back) I think Natalie Haynes was however maintaining a dimly understood position, and hence looked a bit embarrassed. But it did seem a bit forced by Sargeant, and maybe a little bit bullying.

    But his liking of Yes, Prime Minister was probably the worst faux pas.

  2. I find the Review Show itself a load of tedious dribble, led by over-paid presenters and populated by mostly irksome, ego-inflated critics.
    To bother blogging about the word nigger being spoken in clearly defined context speaks volumes for the show’s mundane format and lack-lustre panel who prattle on in a rehearsal of the banter they will no doubt later publish in their columns amongst the weekend newspaper culture sections.

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