Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Tribal Fellowship

Whenever we see righteous indignation, especially in the media, alarm bells should go off in our heads, and we should reach for at least one pinch of salt with more on standby.

This week Prince Harry has been brought to book by some of the press. While in military service in Afghanistan, he called one comrade a Paki, and said another looked like a raghead, (an American epithet for anyone wearing a keffiyeh, the traditional Middle Eastern headdress and protection from sun and sand). I’ll set aside the fact that some of these newspapers are quite capable of name-calling themselves, when the occasion demands.

Name-calling has less to do with the person or group that is being called names, and more about the name-callers. When I went to school in the 1970’s, branding people Paki’s was wrong, but routine, and you had to be quite resolute to avoid being caught up in it. The Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi kids in my school were no better or worse than the rest of us. Being a minority, they probably conducted themselves better than we did.

What drove the name-calling was not whether these minorities deserved it, it was about scruffy working-class Birmingham kids seeing a group they felt they could finally feel superior to. There was a bonding to be had here which was very alluring. If you joined in, then you were part of a group, you belonged. This is why it didn’t necessarily have to be South Asians, it could have been any easily identifiable group, the key was the name-callers belonging together as a group.

Princes don’t belong, by definition, they are always out-of-step with the rest of us. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t want to, it is a basic human need. We should not be surprised if they occasionally do things which are gawky, or ill-judged. We should certainly be more compassionate than some of our newspapers. Whatever Prince Harry takes from this episode the hard lesson is that, even among his fellow soldiers, someone in that fellowship was going to betray him, to send him the message loud and clear, that he did not belong.

Posted by Andrew Spurr on Wednesday, 14 January 2009 at 11:15am GMT | TrackBack
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Prince Harry has always said he wants to be treated as any other soldier would. I suspect that any other young officer who did this would have been dishonorably discharged immediately, as an example to others, and as a proof that this was not the way the army expected its officers to behave. And quite right, too.

Posted by: toby forward on Wednesday, 14 January 2009 at 11:25am GMT

Interesting thoughts, Andrew.

As for the specifics of the case, it seems to me that soldiers--even royal ones--deal in hard language all the time. It's a way of blowing off steam. The practice of using derogatory terms for one's comrades is so common as to not require notice in most circumstances.

And, I must say, as derogatory terms go, "Paki" is pretty mild.

Posted by: Pat O'Neill on Wednesday, 14 January 2009 at 11:28am GMT

Just about everything about the reportage of Prince Harry gets on my nerves. The poor guy can't seem to do anything right.

Andrew, I think you've hit on an interesting point when referring to your experience at school -- at last these kids in Birmingham had found someone they could feel superior to. Consider this. Prince Harry is a younger son; he is not in direct line for the throne. He was not born to be king. He will always rank below his brother, and in time, below his sister-in-law and any nieces and nephews (once they reach majority). The only advantage is that, to a certain extent, he won't be a public figure on quite the same scale as his brother. All the same, it must be terrific for the self-esteem.

What this means is that, like Princess Margaret -- and, to a certain extent, Princess Diana -- Prince Harry will live a life that will always be easy pickings for a tabloid press that has demonstrated that it will not respect his entitlement to privacy. Not only will he never be equal to his brother, but his life will be the basis for those grubby newspapers that still feel some shadow of restraint in publishing scandalous material about his brother.

The wonder is that people don't see that once you've read about one royal scandal, you've probably seen them all. One wonders why we have to be subjected to all this twenty-something buffoonery as if it was truly newsworthy. Which, really, it isn't.

Posted by: kieran crichton on Wednesday, 14 January 2009 at 11:52am GMT

If the Army did what Toby suggests, there wouldn't be any officers at all! Young men in situations of stress have always used pretty strong language among themselves. They then go out and risk their lives for each other. If, like me, you haven't experienced that, don't judge.

This is the same Harry whose behaviour at the recent Children of Courage event was exemplary and uplifting.

Posted by: David Exham on Wednesday, 14 January 2009 at 2:26pm GMT

Since the men he referred to were in his outfit, is there the slightest possibility that this was not insult, but rather, the use of otherwise pejorative names within a tightly-knit group, and by mutual consent?

I'm thinking of gay friends of mine who, among themselves, tease each other with language {Oh, you old faggot, you!} that would be insulting from an outsider?

Or us he just a clueless, although royal, oaf?

Posted by: Cynthia Gilliatt on Wednesday, 14 January 2009 at 2:43pm GMT

All people have some prejudice. There's always some group we're not going to like (be it gays, evangelicals, whites, blacks, Muslims, Hindus or people who live on the other side of the town). No matter how hard we work at it, we still have some part that holds another group in disdain. Prince Harry is a person just like the rest of us. Unlike us, the prince will always be under the scrutiny of the media. Aren't there more important things for the press to be concerned with?

Posted by: bobinswpa on Wednesday, 14 January 2009 at 2:54pm GMT

Why is this of interest? I find the reporting of a three year old video tedious on the national news, and then - scoop - we hear that dad calls a friend Sooty. Hang on a minute, what did you say? Oh, Sooty tells me he agrees with me, and so do Sweep and Sue.

Posted by: Pluralist on Wednesday, 14 January 2009 at 3:43pm GMT

Harry did nothing much. The newspapers need to make a profit. I cannot imagine any soldier being discharged for this, as Toby suggests. He was joking around, and comes across as a remarkably normal young guy, or bloke as the English call them, a great outcome for someone brought up in the royal family. Let us hope his brother is just as normal, for it will allow the monarchy to go on without too much sniping from the republicans.

Posted by: Andrew on Wednesday, 14 January 2009 at 6:23pm GMT

"I suspect that any other young officer who did this would have been dishonorably discharged immediately, as an example to others, and as a proof that this was not the way the army expected its officers to behave."

No, probably not, actually.

Posted by: BillyD on Wednesday, 14 January 2009 at 7:13pm GMT

"Aren't there more important things for the press to be concerned with?"

Especially considering the fact that he made this comment three years ago?

Posted by: Erika Baker on Wednesday, 14 January 2009 at 7:53pm GMT

"And quite right, too."

No, actually. Quite knee jerk and politically correct. As has been pointed out, these are soldiers, who in your average day probably witness things you cannot imagine. I can, but only because I am exposed to Forensic Pathology and have seen the pictures of what comes back in those coffins that are so solemnly marched off the plane with high honours. How many times would you be able to bear seeing what's left of one of YOUR friends after one of those home made explosives goes off under his truck? This is not racism, sorry, but it isn't. It is bonding between people whose duty is to suffer the effects of great sin, both their own and others, first hand, in a way you cannot think of. Don't be in such a rush to take offence on someone else's behalf that you show this kind of disrespect to people who, whatever I might think of what it is they do, are brave enough to volunteer to put their lives on the line in the defence of you and me, and suffer the emotional and spiritual damage that that entails. Sorry. I have no idea why this issue touches a nerve with me, especially after all I have said and believe about the idea that the state can append "unless we say so" to "Thou shalt not kill." But it does.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Wednesday, 14 January 2009 at 8:12pm GMT

I have no idea of the context in which Prince Harry said this. If it was three years ago, I'd like to think that someone set him aside and told him to watch his tongue.
I don't know the history of "Paki" in the UK. But, from my perspective, in the US, "raghead" is always used in a pejorative sense, always by non-Muslims, and always with a sense that the people who are using it are superior and the people it is being used against are contemptible and worse. In that sense, I agree with the author. To me, though, the word is inexcusable, just as a certain used against Black Americans is inexcusable and certain words used against Jews are inexcusable.
I also agree with Ms. Gilliat that among different minorities, it is acceptable to use words and language that would not be acceptable among outsiders. Nonetheless, although he's part of a very exclusive and privileged club, Prince Harry isn't an insider in this situation.
Whether he likes it or not, Prince Harry is always going to be in a fishbowl, even if he never gets to enjoy that fishbowl's ultimate prizes.

Posted by: peterpi on Wednesday, 14 January 2009 at 8:40pm GMT

"I suspect that any other young officer who did this would have been dishonorably discharged immediately, as an example to others, and as a proof that this was not the way the army expected its officers to behave. And quite right, too."
- Toby Forward -

Obviously Mr. Forward, you have never been a member of the armed cervices, whose officers and men, living under very different conditions from most of us, are prone to use such 'terms of endearment' as Prince Harry is reported (all too fervently by the press) to have employed here.

The armed services have a culture of mateship not common to civilian life generally - excepting perhaps among sporting teams - which allows them to use terms like Pommy, Paki, Paddy or Yankee
B.....d, on a more or less friendly basis much of the time. Political Correctness in this area is certainly not practised by platoon sergeants towards towards rookies on the parade ground.

To take seriously this breach of discipline on the part of Prince Harry would be to abolish to the cameraderie which is part of service life. Most young men at some time in their career could be found guilty of erring in this way. Why penalise the Royal Family - especially when most of us expect them to be more 'like us'.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Thursday, 15 January 2009 at 9:07am GMT

Well, Billy D, we're both speculating, but I can't imagine any conditions under which any other officer who was found to have done this would be able to remain in the British army.

At present the army is fighting on two fronts, Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which have significant strategic relationships with Pakistan. The use of the term 'paki' by a serving officer does a great deal to harm the reputation the army needs for being able to deal without racial prejudice in these areas. The whole nexus of Muslim/Christian relations is fundamental to the army's being able to do its job and to the safety of British soldiers in these parts of the world. An officer who is in the habit of referring to colleagues as 'pakis' is a dangerous element.

The morale of troops of different ethnic origins in the British army is a matter of much concern, and there have been high-profile cases of racism. The army is doing a great deal to try to recruit and retain such soldiers, especially Muslim soldiers at this time. This video undermines years of hard work.

If it is true, as some posters here have suggested, that words like this are common currency in the army, then that is further reason why an officer who is found using them should be dismissed.

People are suggesting that it is Prince Harry's misfortune that he is such a high-profile person that this video is newsworthy. It would have made the news even if the officer concerned had been the son of the local greengrocer. Far from being unlucky, Prince Harry is lucky that his privileged birth will save him from the dismissal that the greengrocer's son would have faced.

Posted by: toby forward on Thursday, 15 January 2009 at 9:55am GMT

Toby - the British Army is well able to distinguish between the malicious and derogatory use of language and a foolish choice of words. Most E&D complaints are handled informally. Did the person mean to give offence? Did the remark offend the person addressed? Did the remark offend any third party who witnessed it? What action will satisfy any victim?

In most instances unless the original remark was clearly malicious, was intended to cause offence and clearly did so a complaint would be handled by an apology and treated largely as a matter of education not of discipline. In my experience of these matters this approach is even-handedly applied both for greengrocer's son and Prince.

Prince Harry certainly did not behave as an officer should in his choice of language - nor, simply as a serviceman, did he properly reflect the core values of the Army. However at this level of friendly, if ill-advised, banter its not a sacking offence - otherwise we'd have even fewer people in the services.

Posted by: andrew holden on Thursday, 15 January 2009 at 12:12pm GMT

Did the soldier(s) being called a "Paki" and a "raghead" take offence? Then why should the nation pay any attention? The only thing worse than a slow news day is the masses being so gullible as to be interested in it. Move along; nothing to hear here!

Posted by: Tim on Friday, 16 January 2009 at 12:57am GMT

I am so glad that I have joined a church that recognises God's love of 'scruffy working class Birmingham kids" as much as that loving forgiveness is offered to such a royal personage.

I have seen the video, and there's not a lot of what one might call 'combat stress' to the situation in which these comments were made.

Once again I am sorry to perceive a subtle but telling social bias in the dialogue on this site, where name-calling is fine as long as those named and shamed belong to a lower social order, whereas a lot of what has been said in defence of Harry amounts to my reading of it as little more than hurried sycophancy.

Posted by: orfanum on Friday, 16 January 2009 at 7:09am GMT

I get the feeling that I'm inflicting physical punishment on an expired member of the equine family, but I'll give this one more go.

People are saying, 'you have never been a member of the armed services, whose officers and men, living under very different conditions from most of us, are prone to use such 'terms of endearment' as Prince Harry is reported (all too fervently by the press) to have employed here.

The armed services have a culture of mateship not common to civilian life generally - excepting perhaps among sporting teams - which allows them to use terms like Pommy, Paki, Paddy or Yankee
B.....d, on a more or less friendly basis much of the time. Political Correctness in this area is certainly not practised by platoon sergeants towards towards rookies on the parade ground.'

and 'the British Army is well able to distinguish between the malicious and derogatory use of language and a foolish choice of words. Most E&D complaints are handled informally. Did the person mean to give offence? Did the remark offend the person addressed? Did the remark offend any third party who witnessed it? What action will satisfy any victim?'

I accept that both of these points are true. My point is, that this is what is known as 'institutionalised racism'. It used to be commonplace in every school yard and every police station, and pretty well every workplace. It no longer exists in those places. It is not tolerated. The culture has gone, and where the remnants cling on they are punished severely when uncovered.

The British army has said it will also eradicate this institutional racism from its life. I remain of the opinion that the climate of belief at the moment is that no other serving officer, whose actions were made public in this way, would be able to remain in place.

As far as I'm concerned, I think the horse is pretty much dead now in this thread, and I'll stop thrashing it.

Posted by: toby forward on Friday, 16 January 2009 at 9:19am GMT

"My point is, that this is what is known as 'institutionalised racism'."

I think the point being made in response to this is that it is a simplistic understanding of what is actually happening, and is informed more by what is called "political correctness", which I would define as being "sensitive" about the things that a certain group in society tells us we are supposed to be "senstive" about while turning a blind eye to other issues that are just as deserving of "sensitivity" but which count for nothing since those who define what we are supposed to be "sensitive" about do not recognize them.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Friday, 16 January 2009 at 4:11pm GMT

While those engaging in racist, sexist or homophobic language in tight-knit institutions do not always intend to be offensive, the effects can be harmful. There is an interesting account in the Mirror of what it is like to be on the receiving end of racism in the army on http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/top-stories/2009/01/12/racism-is-never-a-joke-i-am-utterly-disgusted-by-harry-115875-21034773/. This is a longstanding problem (see e.g. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/jan/13/military-racism); certainly, when I was young, the armed forces had an appalling reputation among ethnic minority people, and the situation is far from resolved. Use of the 'P-word', like wearing a Nazi uniform to a fancy-dress party, may seem like harmless fun to those who have not been at the receiving end of racism, and admittedly some of us who have been have learnt to claim that we are unaffected for fear of becoming even more markedly outsiders. But such conduct should not be seen as acceptable.

Posted by: Savi Hensman on Friday, 16 January 2009 at 11:34pm GMT

Notwithstanding his grandmama's unique status vis-a-vis ONE province of the Communion, what exactly does this story have to do with Anglicanism?

Posted by: Malcolm+ on Monday, 19 January 2009 at 5:32pm GMT

Readers may find this article by Riazat Butt of interest:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/13/islam-gaza-israel

Posted by: Simon Sarmiento on Monday, 19 January 2009 at 6:23pm GMT
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