Saturday, February 11, 2012

Freedom of Speech isn't Meant to be Pretty

John Terry will be subjected to a criminal trial for mouthing some words in the direction of Anton Ferdinand*. The more I think about this, the more disturbing I find it. It is possible to commit a crime with words, when they are explicitly threatening in tone and content, when they are an effective substitute for physical violence, when they are intended, and may readily have the effect of bringing about violence, theft or other recognisably criminal activity, when they cause, and are intended to cause, loss of honour or income, and doubtless in some other cases, too. What Terry did was none of these things. The words, if indeed he said what he is alleged to have said, were spat out after some sort of disagreement on the field of play, much as we swear at a motorist who doesn’t stop at a zebra crossing, and were not heard by anyone, and certainly not by the presumed referent of the words.

The important question is not, in fact, why the ****ity *****ing ****** is a man being brought to court for mouthing the word ‘black’, because that’s what it comes down to. No, the important question is, do you- yes, I mean you, and you, and you, yes, even you at the back there who’s not paying attention- do you want every word that leaves your mouth, or every movement made by your lips, to be analysed by a court which will determine aposteriori (and arbitrarily, I suspect) whether you were ‘allowed’ to say it? Before you answer, think- do you never lose control of your tongue, do you never speak without thinking, are you absolutely certain of how everything you say will be interpreted? You never say racist things, you say; well, neither do I, and unlike some of our prominent anti-racists, I don’t think them either, so I don’t have to worry about what I might say in an unguarded moment. But is there no one, no group, no type of person that you sometimes think of in stereotypically, contemptuously, despectively, generally rather than individually? Hmmm, remember, you may not be a racist, but it’s not you making the rules here, is it? Do you still want someone to apply the whimsical judgement of the day to every word you say, or appear to say, with all those CCTV cameras about? I thought not.

Is John Terry a racist? Probably not. Is he a thug? Probably. Is he a criminal? No, not as far as I know. Is he fit to captain England? Yawn!

Luis Suárez today refused to shake the hand of Patrice Evra at the start of a Man Utd- Liverpool game today. This story goes back to the start of the season when Suárez was banned for eight games for using racist language to Evra. He should ahve just kicked him in the nuts. It would have only cost him two games. At the time I recall some confusion about what language he had said it in and what it might have been intended to mean. I don’t know if it was ever clarified. I hope the FA did, at least. The press, of course, would not even understand what there was to clarify.

Today, Evra went to shake Suárez’s hand. Not seeking him out, just treating him like any other opponent as they moved along the line before the match. A gentlemanly gesture, putting it all behind him. But as far as Suárez was concerned, this was the man whose complaint had cost him an eight-match ban, which he was not prepared to put behind him. He refused the hand that Evra offered. A pity, on the face of it, but there you are. Alex Ferguson, never a man to waste an opportunity, said that Suárez’s behaviour could have caused a riot and seemed to suggest the police should have got involved. Is it normal in England now to go screaming to the law about every little thing that might not be in the true spirit of gentlemanship and brotherly love?

*It’s alleged that he called him a ‘fucking black cunt’. I can understand Ferdinand wasn’t too happy about that, and when they meet again I can imagine his tackling of Terry will be robust and full of vim. But he, and most players in the game, have heard and said worse during a match, and forgotten it afterwards. Nobody gets locked up for it.

In fact, the position of Ferdinand is probably complicated. I don't imagine he wants to make such a fuss, and I'm certain he didn't want the ridiculous spectacle of a trial, and a possible sentence, and a criminal record. On the other hand, he is probably wary of shrugging it off,  in case the fact of not taking it seriously should lead to other, more serious, incidents. I dare say there is no shortage of new 'friends' helping him to reach a decision, either. Not a  happy position to be in.


Vincent said...

Totally agree with you. My wife is black Jamaican, by the way, and I happily live in a street whose population is 80% Pakistani. Both these facts have given me as good an insight as a white person can have as to what racism really is.

CIngram said...

A far better insight than my own, I imagine. Mostly because of where I live, and also by chance, I don't actually have any non-white friends, nor have I ever had much contact with mixed societies or social contact with non-whites, at least not since University. It means that I am not very aware of the effect that a sense of being disliked, distrusted or not fully accepted by the people around you, for other than personal reasons, can be like.

It's a difficult subject to discuss casually, because people tend to assume you are a racist defending racism, and either agree with you or get angry without actually listening. I'm not, of course. The main point is the clear and important difference between unpleasant or discomfiting language, and actions that directly affect the physical, economic or social well-being of aparticular person. Between them there is not so much a dividing line as a watershed, and it matters because people are too ready to toss away their own and my freedom in order to feel momentarily superior to a specific person who has performed a particular act.

Thornavis said...

I once whacked someone round the legs with a cricket stump, after they had been involved in disrupting our game for no good reason and then refused to shake hands with him, using the words, " I wouldn't touch him with a bargepole", to the great consternation of all around. I was eleven at the time. I don't have a criminal record but i have matured a bit.

CIngram said...

I imagine you'd do it a more restrained, but possibly more effective way, now. I assume it was a teacher or other supervising adult who tried to get you to shake hands. It's a form of box-ticking that let's us forget the matter. But to the children it probably means nothing.