Right, Wrong, Just Taboo?

Who decides what is right, what is wrong and what is just taboo, and how is that decision made?

There was a story in the press last week that was interesting for a number of reasons.  I should say that, for the purpose of this post, I’ll censor one of the words that made this story so interesting.  According to Essex Live, here’s what happened:

A judge gave as good as she got when a racist thug hurled abuse at her as she jailed him for 18 months for insulting a black Caribbean mother in Harlow, Essex.

John Hennigan, 50, facing sentence for his NINTH breach of an Anti Social Behaviour Order in 11 years began his tirade from the dock at Chelmsford Crown Court by telling Judge Patricia Lynch QC she was “a bit of a c**t”.

She retorted: “You are a bit of a c**t yourself. Being offensive to me doesn’t help.”

Hennigan shouted back: “Go f**k yourself.

“You too,” replied the judge.

Hennigan then banged on the glass panel of the dock, performed a Nazi salute and twice shouted “Sieg Heil” before starting to sing “Jews gas them all….”

Judge Lynch, still speaking in a measured tone, commented: “We are all really impressed. Take him down.”

Judge Patricia Lynch, QC, received widespread praise for the robust way she dealt with John Hennigan when sentencing him.  However, she was placed under official investigation by the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office after it received several complaints about her choice of language in court.

So, first things first – “the C word”.  I’m hoping that most people know what it is without me having to write it out given how offensive some people find it.  Google defines it as vulgar slang for a woman’s genitals as well as “an unpleasant or stupid person”.

Obviously this is seen as probably the most obscene and taboo of swear words, with even Germaine Greer calling it “one of the few remaining words in the English language with a genuine power to shock”.  However, it’s etymology is anything but.

In ancient Egypt it was a word used as a synonym for “woman”.  Chaucer used the variant “quentyne” in Canterbury Tales.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces its earliest English usage back to 1230, when the street that made up London’s red-light district was called—not even kidding—Gropecunt Lane.


I’ve seen some articles that place the words origins with Kunda or Cunti, the Oriental Great Goddess from where all life came and to where all life returns for renewal.  From the word comes other words such as kin, kind and country.  These strong origins are why some feminists are trying to reclaim the word from vulgarity and use it as a show of strength against the Patriarch.

To be fair, it’s only really modern connotations that made the word abusive.  As previously alluded to, the abusiveness of the word is probably still in the patriarchal undertones which leads nicely to the second point that I found interesting but don’t want to dwell on for too long given how moot it is.  Would a male judge have been praised by some quarters in similar fashion to a female judge for such an exchange?

Having dealt with the word and the exchange, what about the punishment? From what I can gather, the defendant gave directions to a woman with young children and, as she walked away, is alleged to have said, “I don’t agree with interracial relationships… I like natural. I prefer white children… I’m just saying.”

At first reading, I wasn’t entirely sure that what he said was racist.  Again, it seems moot to me although I will obviously bow to the greater knowledge and wisdom of law enforcement.  It is stupid, ignorant and a few other words that I’m failing to find and it shouldn’t have been said, but given that the statement I wrote there (and which I’ve seen published by a few outlets without further quote) is a statement of disagreement and preference with a statement of superiority as an aside or inference, in my opinion, is it truly racist?

My thought was that if I said I preferred, say, watching men’s tennis or women’s football, would that make me sexist? I doubt it, but I don’t really know.  I have a preference based on the speed of the games, the patterns of the play, the tactics.  The sex of the participants, to me, is incidental to that but a major point to someone seeking to confirm gender bias.

Even the disagreement with interracial relationships is questionable.  But for me the only racist part is the assertion that interracial relationships aren’t natural.  Take out that part of the statement and the defendant may have “got away with it”.

Indeed, if the defendant had not have aired his opinions, he would not have committed an offence.

It’s worth noting here that the c-word exchange happened after the sentence was passed.

Until I found more details I thought this was a first time offence, which obviously it isn’t.  I remember thinking that 18 months imprisonment sounded a lot for what was said.  As I read further and found out that defence counsel claimed the defendant only acted the way he did because of his diagnosed depression, I wondered what 18 months imprisonment would achieve in the way of rehabilitation.  Unless he would get counselling in prison, one would assume that he would leave lock-up in a worse mental state and more likely to reoffend.

Everything about this case, to me, centred around what we find taboo.  All law stems from unwritten social codes which dictate what is right and what is wrong and protects our civil liberties.  Most of these are obvious – murder, robbery, breaking a contract…  But when it comes to things that are merely offensive to some and do not result in tangible loss, it’s interesting how society somehow determines what is good and what is bad.

Margarita told Tom
between thought and expression lies a lifetime
situations arise because of the weather
and no kinds of love
are better than others

Some kinds of love
Margarita told Tom
like a dirty French novel
combines the absurd with the vulgar
and some kinds of love
the possibilities are endless
and for me to miss one
would seem to be groundless

I heard what you said

Margarita heard Tom
and of course you’re a bore
but in that you’re not charmless
’cause a bore is a straight line
that finds a wealth in division
and some kinds of love
are mistaken for visionary

Put jelly on your shoulder
let us do what you fear most
that from which you recoil
but which still makes your eyes moist

Put jelly on your shoulder baby
lie down upon the carpet
between thought and expression
let us now kiss the culprit

I don’t know just what it’s all about
but put on your red pajamas and find out

Some Kinda Love by The Velvet Underground

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