If I wore a T-shirt saying "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave" I don't think anybody would take any notice. Certainly I wouldn't look that out of place on the street, at a festival, or any of the places where hipsters, emos, skaters, rockers, beardists or any of the other tribes battling for semiological space on their chests. Go to any sixth form common room and you'll see a lot worse than that; in fact there's actually a whole flourishing marketing niche for "slavery" themed T-shirts.
But when Helen Mirren, darling of the BritFilm establishment, wore precisely that T-shirt as part of a Time Out photoshoot to promote her new film about the suffragettes, it was a different story.
"Is everyone in Hollywood taking cultural insensitivity courses?" asked a Twitter user called Dionne. "Meryl Streep you look like my mom and I really like that, but uh that shirt was oblivious, tone-deaf, terrible," said another. "It's certainly an inappropriate thing to have four white women wearing slavery T-shirts," the author of "Women and the Vote: A World History," told the Telegraph. "White women have said a lot of terrible things over the course of history, doesn't mean you wear it on a shirt," added a user called Jamilah Lemieux, part of a social media backlash that seemed to feel it was inappropriate for white women to reference slavery from a position of white privilege.
Now, it may be that there's a lot less to this story than appears. Most of the posts I picked up on social media simply repeated the mainstream press's assertion that there was a "backlash" over the T-shirt; I searched Twitter myself and didn't find much evidence of it. But widespread or not, I do think that the example draws attention to a worrying aspect of modern life. It highlights a kind of over-arching "context collapse" - the wilful tendency to take things in ways they were never intended and then explode into sputtering anger at the result.
In this case, for example, the word "slave" was part of an original quote by activist Emmeline Pankhurst, who led the suffragette campaign to give women the vote. It has precisely zero to do with what happened over several centuries between Africa and the Americas. The slave trade is one of the modern period's worst atrocities (it's now commonly understood as fitting most of the definitions of genocide) and it should sicken us all. But I don't think that means the use of the word "slave" should be off-limits, nor should it only refer to that dark period of European and American history. What about the armies of people around the world still engaged in some form of bonded labour? What about the kids mining our coltan and stitching our sweaters?
Economic slavery may not use shackles any more - it doesn't need to - but that doesn't mean that it's all that much "freer". Criminal gangs using migrant wage-slaves can be found from Kent to Moldova; and that's not even to mention prison labour. Chains are still in use there.
I'm all too aware that there are uncomfortable trigger words that can raise uncomfortable sensations in an audience. When it comes to the R-word and the N-word I can understand why.
But "slave" is too general for such a quarantine. Isn't language supposed to be something publicly owned - a part of our culture that can be endlessly employed and re-employed to express a multitude of meanings? I use words like "holocaust" and "massacre" in my own writings for punch and effect; I have no experience of either. But they're part of the richness of expression that comes with living in a free society. When I organised a night of "antisocial networking" recently I was told I couldn't use the word "curate" in the event title because that "belonged" to the art world; I was only too delighted to ignore them, and look forward to doing it again.
Beyond that, though, I'm not even sure that a word like slave is totally inappropriate to describe the plight of European women at the turn of the twentieth century. Nobody's suggesting that it's in any way comparable to that of Africans shipped over the Atlantic in chains - almost nothing could be. But themes of bonded labour and exploitation were rife in the society the suffragettes struggled to change. Women had no voting or property rights for many centuries; they could lose children, fortunes, home and livelihoods at the hands of men, could be beaten, raped and abused with impunity by their husbands. I'm no historian, but that sounds like a kind of slavery to me.Suggest a correction