A Tory MP was recently recorded using the phrase “Nigger in the woodpile” when speaking about Brexit. She was castigated for use of the term, with the inevitable suggestions of racism. Whilst not condoning the phrase in any way, I want to offer (for the purposes of discussion) another hypothesis – that she is simply ignorant.
Looking at her, she seems to be from a similar generation to mine, brought up in the 50/60s when this phrase, along with “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo…” was in common use and well before ‘we’ started to recognise the implicit (if not occasionally explicit) racism in the use of the ‘N word’. As a child, I happily used the two phrases already mentioned as well as many others we would nowadays regard as ‘beyond the pale’. I was ignorant, not in the colloquially sense it is often used to insult people, but in the literal sense of ‘not knowing’.
Now perhaps by now this woman should have learned about the offensive nature of her words, and perhaps she hasn’t. Maybe she is so isolated from society in general that she isn’t exposed to the issues of racism, or indeed other ‘isms’, that she genuinely does not realise how offensive she has been.
I guess that this plays in to one of the long-argued views about intent. Can one really be guilty in the absence of intent? This principle even is established in UK) law with the phrase “actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea, i.e. “the act is not culpable unless the mind is guilty”. So whilst ignorance of the law is no excuse and will not stop you getting pursued through the courts, the absence of intent will work in your favour.
So was this woman racist or ignorant? What do you think? Do let me know.