Wednesday, November 22, 2017

I'm a Celebrity - The Jack Maynard Debate

My students always like it when I'm able to bring something topical into an English Language lesson. So, when I heard about Jack Maynard getting kicked out of the Celebrity jungle, I knew I had to tackle it head-on because the controversy is central to issues of language and culture, not to mention language change and attitudes. 

If you've not read the offending tweets from Maynard that have resurfaced over the past few days, I'll fill you in. The posts go back to 2011/12 when he would've been roughly 16 or 17. In them, it appears that he uses the 'N' word to reference a group of friends who are, presumably, of colour. He also references someone as being the 'gayest' and, in a further tweet remarks that he considers the intended recipients to be 'retarded' (this was used as a pre-modifier for a more offensive noun). 

Given that Maynard's use of language raises questions about racism, homophobia and attitudes to disability, it's easy to see why he had to leave the reality show. Likely he will, in the coming days, apologise and try to add context to explain his choice of language. It was this issue that I put to my students today. 

Interestingly, opinion was massively divided. While everyone agreed he'd been an idiot, some were disgusted, while others wanted to look at the bigger picture (which, I reminded them, we don't yet have - making the whole thing a theoretical debate, not a judgement in the court of public opinion). 

The points they made were insightful. Let's start with 'gayest'. After accepting that this superlative had extended beyond its reference to sexual orientation, there was some disagreement about whether it had undergone amelioration or pejoration. Either way, the eventual consensus was that the word had been used to describe something boring or rubbish for over a decade. So, without knowing if Maynard's tweet was directed at a gay individual to whom it was intended to be an insult, it became impossible to accuse him of outright homophobia. 

The issue of disability discrimination was more easily resolved. It was generally felt that it was wrong for Maynard to have used language which is often reserved to humiliate others. Ascribing such remarks to any individual was to imply something about their physical or cognitive capabilities. However, it was also noted that the impact appears in some way mitigated when the target does not suffer from a disability. The verdict? That this was an age 'thing' and was more likely to be found offensive by the over 50s who were unfamiliar with the way modern youth often dissociates language from social taboos. 

As you might expect, the 'N' word gave us all a massive headache. Yes, it is occasionally used in a positive and bonding way between groups of friends made up of people of colour, but is it ever OK for another group to jump on the bandwagon of using a word to appear cool? Especially when that word has such an appalling history. If Maynard was referencing friends of colour, it is certainly less repugnant than if he had intended it as a racial slur, but some of my students felt that he was still guilty of cultural appropriation. I discovered that many teenagers are fiercely proud and protective of their heritage, culture and ethnicity, and objected to someone else trying to access or steal that identity for their own benefit. 

Ultimately, nobody in the room stood in judgement because we simply don't have all of the evidence. But it made for a great lesson! I hope others reading this understand the role English teachers play in getting kids to ask the difficult questions about the relationship between language and the worlds we inhabit. 

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