So, Prince Philip is to bow out of public life. The news that he’s retiring from his role as the Queen’s consort was broken to Buckingham Palace staff yesterday, and prompted numerous media retrospectives on his infamous “gaffes”. Harmless buffoonery, or a symptom of deeply damaging general ignorance? JUS News reporter Grace Holliday knows where she stands…
Yesterday, amongst quiet hysteria that our beloved Queen Elizabeth had died, The Palace instead announced rather less sensationally that the well-dressed buffoon Prince Phillip was to retire.
The 96 year-old will see out his last remaining public engagements until some point in the summer. Let’s be honest, given the sheer number of prejudicial and inappropriate comments he somehow managed to make ‘a silly but harmless’ characterisation out of, this can’t come a moment too soon.
The Duke of Edinburgh was once a term that made me shudder, reminded of flashbacks to ‘orienteering’ (read: screaming at a compass) in the rain, trying to achieve my bronze award. While the days of getting hopelessly lost in a field somewhere are long behind me, I still shudder. The term has morphed from a torturous youth programme to what I now understand is the official title of the Prince himself.
A Prince who, in ’86, implied that staying in China for too long would cause British students to become ‘slitty eyed.’ In ’94, asked Cayman Islanders if they were ‘descended from Pirates’. On stress counselling for servicemen and women, in ’95, said: “We didn’t have counsellors rushing around every time somebody let off a gun, asking ‘Are you alright? Are you sure you don’t have a ghastly problem?’ You just got on with it.” In ’10, asked a Scottish Conservative leader, in reference to some tartan material, “Do you have a pair of knickers made out of this?”
This doesn’t include the various comments he’s made at the expense of anorexics, deaf children, the Scottish, Indians, Australian Aborigines, Cantonese and others. Such comments have been called gaffes and one-liners, characterised as hysterical, off-the-cuff, inappropriate, awkward.
We need to stop these euphemisms. These comments are slurs: racist, sexist and classist. They lack respect for people’s heritage, suffering, inabilities and circumstances. They are nuggets of prejudice from the mouth of a person who as white, male and a royal, perfectly embodies the concept of privilege. Not only is he surely very aware of this, he uses his powerful position to avoid retribution. It takes a braver person than I to tell the Queen’s husband to f*** off.
Maybe this makes me “a hysterical young woman who can’t cope with being offended,” as the Sun put it last year. I strongly suspect that the purveyors of the term Generation Snowflake would, thanks to these ‘sensitive’ views consider me a badge-wearing member of the society
But here’s an alternative. Perhaps, me and my fellow ‘snowflakes’ are simply smarter, more switched-on, more attuned to the well-being of others than Philip and his generation. An off the cuff remark about a child’s weight might have been said in jest- the Prince once told a 13-year-old boy that he was too fat to be an astronaut – but its impact could be far from humorous. Humour is not an excuse for offence. If that makes me a snowflake, the cold never bothered me anyway.
That’s not to say that in attempt to dial back offensive comments we haven’t gone too far at times. Expecting schools to change the lyrics of Baa Baa Black Sheep to Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep is ridiculous. But this shouldn’t be classified with a move away from the incredibly offensive term half-caste, and a move towards the neutral mixed race and dual-heritage. My mother is half black, half white. While she doesn’t care about the colour of three bags full of wool, she does care about being labelled only ‘half pure’.
Rather than being overly sensitive- or not sensitive enough- what we all need, regardless of generation, class, race and gender- is a balance. Any offensive comment needs to be weighed against where it came from – was it a place of malice or ignorance? What was the context? And what culture and generation is this person speaking from?
To answer the first, in relation to the Prince, there isn’t any startling evidence that it comes from a place of malice. He’s rude, but he’s not a villain. Ignorance might therefore seem like the culprit, but this is ruled out by the Prince himself: “I’m rude but it’s fun” he once said himself. So, far less forgivably, a disregard to anything other than serving his own warped sense of humour seems to be the real culprit.
The context, conversely, is far harder to pin down. While we can safely assume that some of his comments over the years have been taken out of context, the sheer number of them implies a trend of unkindness, lack of thought and downright rudeness. In 2012, there is simply no excusable context for asking a 24-year-old Sea Cadet if she works in a strip club.
But perhaps he can be saved by point three: his culture and generation. Looking at the wider context of older generations is the only way to answer this.
While writing this feature, I reach out to a number of friends. I ask them to regale me with tales of their homophobic grandfathers and racist grandmothers. They do so in their droves. One tells me about her 86 Irish grandma who, despite having two gay grandchildren, has always connected homophobia to paedophilia. Another is reminded of a rant her own Grandma, 67 and Scottish, recently had about Polish people. She said that she said she didn’t like to give money to the female street sellers because it gets taken off them by their husband. She would rather give it to someone from England.
Prince Phillip is part of this generation too. Albeit separated by royal blood, the trend is simply too obvious to ignore. Yes, this generation grew up in a time when a Gollywog was just a cute toy, and being gay was unnatural, let alone illegal. This forms something of an excuse for comments made in the past. But it doesn’t excuse comments made as times have moved on. The information is very much available to people who wish to right their prejudices.
A gay, male Irish friend tells me that during the 2015 vote to legalise gay marriage in his country, young people rose up in a mass effort to educate their grandparents on pre-voting day. He describes to me how he and many of friends, whatever their sexual orientation, sat their grandparents down and explained why they should vote yes. Many of them, having it explained to them directly by the ones they loved, did. The country’s constitution was amended by a majority of 62%.
Prince Philip has always spoken from a position of great authority. While that young, female sea-cadet might have rightly thrown a drink over a guy in a nightclub making such a comment, with privilege comes power. Not only has the Prince so often been protected from retribution by sheer reverence, despite what some might think, the concept of respecting our elders is not entirely dead. Of all the friends I spoke to about their grandparents, not one of them had ever felt comfortable in directly calling them out on it.
Speaking at a Senior Recognition Day in Kansas back in 2014, Michelle Obama said: “As you go forth, when you encounter folks who still hold the old prejudices because they’ve only been around folks like themselves, when you meet folks who think they know all the answers because they’ve never heard any other viewpoints, it’s up to you to help them see things differently. Maybe that starts simply in your own family, when grandpa tells that off-colored joke at Thanksgiving, or you’ve got an aunt talks about ‘those people’. Well, you can politely inform them that they’re talking about your friends.”
The former First Lady is right, but this habit of correction must spread further than our families. Royal or not, Prince Philip shouldn’t have had such a free and untouchable pass. Derogatory terminology like Generation Snowflake can’t be allowed dissuade us for prioritising sensitivity over humour; rudeness over kindness.
This starts with an end to mislabelling, trivialising and normalising the Princes and others many decades of offensive comments.
Their age might be an explanation, but it is far from an excuse.