Does it matter if Cumberbatch used the wrong word?

By Ben Andrew

Does Language Matter?

We all thought that Benedict Cumberbatch could do no wrong. Loved as Sherlock, acclaimed in The Imitation Game, touching in 12 Years a Slave – Cumberbatch's loyal fan base have turned him into one of modern cinema's most unlikely heart throbs. It seemed that he was over-do for a gaffe, and he duly delivered last week, referring to black people as “coloured” live on American TV.

The outrage was immediate. Twitter erupted as viewers voiced their horror that Cumberbatch would use such an offensive term, and many saw it as symptomatic of an industry that has been heavily criticised for many years of being dominated by white people. Ironically it was this precise issue that Cumberatch was addressing when he used such an ill-advised term. He has since issued a whole hearted apology saying that he was an “idiot” and was “devastated to have caused offence”.

The word coloured is, of course, a deeply offensive term in the United States – much more so than it is in the United Kingdom. It was widely used to implement racial segregation in the U.S. – and has an inbuilt association with the Jim Crow laws which made Black Americans second class citizens as recently as the 1960s. Any actor born and raised in America would surely have that term etched into their brain as something you just do not say, on par with the N-word and other obviously offensive terminology. Cumberbatch is not American of course, but many were surprised that such a famous actor – and one who played a major role in 12 Years a Slave – wouldn't have known better than to call people “coloured”.

A scandal like this, however, does open up an interesting discussion about whether your choice of words has any importance beyond the meaning you are using them to convey. The term “coloured” might have been black-listed in the States for decades now, but many other terms - in America, the UK and globally – remain in a confusing middle phase where no one agrees whether they are acceptable or not.

Ethnic minority”, for instance, is seen by many as the politically correct way to describe people who are non-white, while some people who fit into that bracket don't recognise themselves as ethnic minorities. African American, of course, is a popular one in the States, while Black British is widely preferred to African-British over here. Although “Coloured People” is strictly off limits in America, and outdated at best in the UK, “People of Colour” has made a surprising return to fashion in many circles – despite others still objecting to its use. There are even more complications when it comes to people from racially mixed backgrounds. “Mixed Race” is sometimes seen as an acceptable term, and sometimes considered an insult, while some people choose not to differentiate between people who are racially mixed and those who are black – something which others find offensive.

We can learn two things from this confusion and debate. Firstly that language matters to people very much – and that their preferences over which terms they like and dislike should therefore be taken seriously. Secondly, it tells us that language is subjective. One person's politically correct is another person's deeply offensive, because different people hold different associations with the same words. Language is significant both in terms of the literal meaning it carries, and the connotations that people attach to those meanings – connotations which are not identical for everyone. 

When Cumberbatch stutteringly referred to “coloured people” in his recent interview, is it reasonable to suggest he was using the term deliberately to cause offence -with the connotations of segregated toilets and Jim Crow laws fresh in his mind? No, that would be implausible. He was arguing that more black actors should be given opportunities in film. It wouldn't make sense for him to make such an argument while deliberately insulting the black community at the same time. If you take into account the context of the interview, as well as his apology, then it is clear that Cumberbatch was not being willfully offensive.


But that is not the only charge that he is being faced with. The vast majority of level headed people seem to accept that Cumberbatch did not intend to cause offense, but that doesn't mean he has been free from criticism. After all, the word “Coloured” is not as much of a grey area as some of the other terms I've discussed above. It is very offensive, especially to Americans, and has been so for many years. Many argue, that he should have educated himself and that his ignorance was a crime in itself, regardless of whether or not he intended to cause offense. 

In the context of a live interview, however, I find this charge unfair. If Cumberbatch had used the term repeatedly, or released a pre-written statement where he referred to black people as “coloured” – then that may have been a different matter. But people don't have time to carefully consider the language that they use during a live interview, they just say what they can to get across their point, and don't always use the words that they would choose to if they had had time to reflect.

If the interviewer had sat Cumberbatch down for an examination on language and asked him - “is coloured an acceptable word to use to describe black people in the United States” - he would in all likelihood have said “no – absolutely not, people shouldn't use that term”. To say that he is ignorant, then, is unfair. There's no evidence that he didn't intellectually understand that the term was offensive, just that it popped out of his mouth for one reason or another, because that's what can happen when you're speaking without a filter on live television. It was a slip of the tongue, a mental lapse, and he shouldn't be crucified for it.

It is for this reason that many, including David Oyelowo, the star of Selma, have leapt to Cumberbatch's defence. “I reached out to him in support and said I think it is ridiculous,” Oyelowo said. “When you look at what he was actually saying it's clear that he's a huge supporter of black performers.” Oyelowo is not the only person to voice this opinion, but whether the controversy will have a long standing affect on Cumberbatch's career remains to be seen.

As far as I'm concerned, the issue is over and it shouldn't be held against him. Language is important, and people were right to point out that he used the wrong term. That, however, is where the criticism should end. There's a big difference between someone using a term maliciously, or being completely ignorant as to its connotations, and someone who let the wrong word slip out of their mouth in a live interview. We don't always get our words right, and we shouldn't read any more into Cumberbatch's gaffe than that he made a mistake and has whole heartedly apologised for it.

Indeed, whether he used the right term or not is an irrelevant distraction when compared with the subject of racial discrimination in the film industry that Cumberbatch was discussing. Our focus should not be on punishing him for a linguistic mistake, but on commending him for speaking out about an issue that so many white actors have remained silent about for so many years. Bravo Benedict.