I want to briefly comment on a comment made in the last post, from reader boynamedsue:
I think it’s an interesting cultural difference between the UK and US. The concept of “hate speech” as a generalised category has not really entered into our public consciousness, though you’ll hear it from some very middle class people who work in the media and allied political trades. Partially, I think, because it’s so hard to define.
There has obviously been a sea change in the use of culturally ‘offensive’ language in the United States. Ever since the Clarence Thomas affair of the early 90’s (or perhaps before it), we have been more conscious of language that makes others uncomfortable. Has this trend extended to the other side of the Atlantic?
In terms of overtly racist language, I’d hazard to guess things don’t differ that much. That’s not to say there aren’t segments of the populations in each country that still say horribly racist things, but rather that such sentiments aren’t part of polite conversation anymore.
Something I’m less clear on, however, is language that falls under the vague umbrella of ‘sexual harassment.’ I recall around 2004, when the original British version of the The Office had become popular in America, that an English coworker explained that the show worked well because ‘the sexual harassment concept never entered the British consciousness.’ I’ve never worked in Britain, so I can’t say if this is true or not.
Regardless, ‘Sexually harassing’ language arguably differs from racist language (for example), in that it can’t be boiled down to single, offensive words. This type of offense is rather a matter of what linguists refer to as pragmatics, the context in which language is used. Sexual harassment is about insinuations, hidden motivations, and ill-intentions. So it’s hard to ascertain people’s attitudes toward it.
As usual, I welcome answers to the question at hand: Is America more ‘sensitive’ about offensive language than the UK? Or vice versa?