This week John Terry has been accused of racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand during a televised Premier League match. It is not the first time he has allegedly used racist language on a football pitch: in 2007 he was accused of calling Ledley King a “lippy black monkey”.
In protesting his innocence, the England captain used an impenetrable line of defence, one which left prosecution lawyers trembling in their brogues: “I used to play Sunday football with Ledley King”. The irony of this tenuous link was not lost on all, least of all by Wayne Bridge, who shared a dressing room with John Terry for 3 seasons as an adult before having an affair with his wife.
What it does show is a petulant, preposterous attitude and deluded attitude towards racism; that’s right John, let’s play the ‘how many black people do you know?’ game. Ron Atkinson signed a whole host of black players, shared a dressing room with and worked 6 out of 7 days in a week alongside black players before he called Marcel Desailly a “lazy nigger” on air. So, when the captain of the country’s football team yells at a player “black cunt”, it doesn’t matter how many of his childhood friends, or team mates, are black. In any case, it’s against the law.
It then came as a double blow for sportsmen (if you can call a golf caddy a sportsman) when Tiger Woods’s former caddy was accused of racial insensitivity. Given Ricky Gervais’s persistent use of “mong”, the last few weeks have re sparked a debate about the affect of words- be it racism, homophobia or discrimination toward disabled people.
For the sake of argument, let us pretend that Anton didn’t mind. Does this make it acceptable? Of course not. That’s like David Brent telling a racist joke and then pointing to Oliver, the ‘black character’ in The Office, saying “look, he doesn’t mind”. The point is, if you make a malicious remark about someone about something someone has no control over- race, disabilities, sexual preference, it is wrong. It is also illegal if it is harassing or inciting hatred. Great work has been done to ‘stamp racism out’ of football. There is no room in the game- at any level- for what John Terry said.
This is not a tirade about the importance of political correctness to our world, and I really don’t like the condescending snobbery from many academics about the use of un-pc terms. If someone uses a term which is offensive to a certain group, then by all means tell them this term isn’t appropriate, but don’t patronise someone who is oblivious to the fact. The difference between Karl Pilkington, someone who perhaps made a few borderline-racist comments on X-FM in his early days and Ricky Gervais, who was repeatedly told that ‘Mong’ is an offensive insult to those suffering from Down’s Syndrome, is the malice in which it is said. In a typically aggressive defence and despite thousands of tweets sent to Gervais complaining, he preceded to use the word, intentionally winding people up by, for example tweeting “Good Monging”. This kind of behaviour isn’t against the law, but is repugnant at best. Pilkington on the other hand, was innocent in his vocabulary, oblivious to what is considered offensive.
There is a point to be made about words evolving from their original meaning though. I often refer to John Terry as synonyms of both male and female genitalia. I think this is a word which no longer carries the same connotations as it originally did. For example, I have no specific prejudice towards male masturbation, but I still have a partiality to call the aforementioned men by a term which describes this.
I think there is a balance to be struck between joke and malice. There is a freedom of speech point to be made- as a liberal democracy; we must allow people to say as they feel free, as long as it does not incite hatred. We may not like what they say, but they should be free to be idiots, no?
The realm of comedy also strikes interesting consequences for this. One of my favourite stand ups, Russell Peters, often makes jokes based around race or cultures. When he does so, it is usually at the expense of his own culture and is jovial and is not malicious at all. Indeed, I grew up in the most multicultural borough in the UK and everyone made jokes about each other’s cultures all the time. But it was never in a malicious, bullying way. We became completely desensitised to it and ended up just exaggerating stereotypes that people had. I’m not saying the way to prevent offending people is to use offensive terminology, but the witch hunts for any type of prejudice can in some cases perpetuate the stigma that the words/ideas have. Maybe there’s an intuitive difference, but I don’t think this is in any way comparable to a man who, on collecting an award, stands up at a Golf Ceremony and emphatically claims he’d love to “shove it up that black asshole”. Incidentally, asshole is quite a defendable insult.
So, while sticks and stones may break bones, words may actually hurt me, especially if those words lead to someone hurling sticks and or stones at me. The law is right and should be enforced- you cite hatred or harass someone because of something beyond their control, you’re arrested. Ultimately, those accused of overstepping the line seem to have one thing in common- they’re all a bunch of bankers. (Sorry City of London)