Kicking football racism into touch

In parallel develoments, the Liverpool striker Luis Suarez and Chelsea’s John Terry were charged with racial offences, the former by the FA, the latter, earlier today, by the CPS. Suarez has been banned for eight games and fined £40,000. Terry’s offence carries a maximum fine of £2,500 but, if convicted, he’ll have a criminal record. Let’s look at the two cases.

Even by the standards of his profession, Suarez can hardly be confused with an altar boy. When signed by Liverpool from Ajax last season, he was serving a seven-game ban for biting a defender. I don’t know what line of defence he pursued in Holland, presumably that he was feeling peckish, but whatever it was it didn’t work. Earlier this month, while awaiting the FA’s verdict, he saluted the terraces with an outstretched middle finger. Among other things this testifies to his insufficient sensitivity to the British cultural idiom: in this country, Luis, we do it with two fingers. This isn’t America, you know.

In fact, it’s Suarez’s poor command of English that seems to have caused the offence. He, in common, incidentally, with Chambers English Dictionary, doesn’t realise that the word ‘negro’ is pejorative. In his native language it isn’t; in fact, said Suarez, it’s almost affectionate, used to mean ‘mate’. And he doesn’t remember saying it anyway. Neither does anyone else who was on the pitch at the time. The only one who seems to have heard the word is the accuser, the ManU defender Patrice Evra. He heard the ‘n’ word, considered it offensive, and that’s all there’s to it. Chambers can go suck an egg.

Many have accused Mr Evra of hypersensitivity, and in fact he is known to have made similar accusations in the past, without justification. Now, if Suarez indeed used that word, stylistically neutral though it may be, he probably didn’t do so out of affection. And though he may not know this, in today’s Britain an insult is anything the victim considers it to be. Some may even be insulted by the acronym FA.

As to Evra’s sensitivity, he’s entitled to it: after all, many Africans were brought to Europe as slaves. Genetic memory of en masse humiliation and brutality lives long, though perhaps in Britain it ought to have attenuated a bit. If my black friend in Texas still remembers having to ride in the back of a bus in the 60s, England’s Chief Justice Holt ruled as far back as in 1702 that ‘as soon as a negro [the word hadn’t been PCfied yet] comes to England, he is free; one may be a villein in England, but not a slave.’ Be that as it may, Evra has a right to feel aggrieved, and would have been justified in insulting Suarez right back, calling him say a Uruguayan, possibly preceded by an obscene modifier. Instead he chose to demand institutional justice and, pending an appeal, won his case — even though it was his word against Suarez’s. You decide whether justice has been served.   

Now John Terry wouldn’t have his photograph in the dictionary next to the word ‘decorum’. The man has had a few brushings with police, one for using a bottle as an offensive weapon. However, the chap on the receiving end was white, so the issue of racism didn’t come up. This time, it has. Upset with an opponent, Terry, being unlike Suarez a native speaker, used the PC adjective ‘black’. But he inserted  it between two sexually oriented obscenities. You know, the words you heard used together the other day, when walking through High Street? When the chap (or was it a girl?) who said it didn’t even get a reprimand? In such cases, few are overly bothered these days. Words several clicks below on the insult scale would have been grounds for a different response in the past: ‘You, Sir, are a bounder and a cad, and I am at your service.’ These days we don’t believe in duels, and we really don’t mind insults. Unless, of course, they are preceded or followed by a chromatic adjective.

Unlike Suarez’s, Terry’s affront was filmed, and under the weight of evidence provided by numerous lip readers he had to own up. ‘I did use the words,’ he allowed. ‘But only after the other guy accused me of using them when I hadn’t. I replied “How dare you say that an upstanding man like me could have possibly called you a […]. That’s when I was filmed.” ‘ Quite. Terry’s lawyers must have worked overtime on that one.

I’m defending neither Suarez nor, especially, Terry. They aren’t gentlemen; they are thugs. So are those who scream, in public, the kind of words that until Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been unprintable in Britain. Standards of public behaviour must be upheld, but one can’t help noticing that while hypersensitivity in one instance is aggressively encouraged by the government, hyposensitivity in the other is promoted by the whole ethos of modernity. For purely aesthetic reasons, I’d be happy to see not just the book but the whole library thrown at Terry. But I can’t help noticing that state interference in private squabbles tends to foster exactly the kind of behaviour it’s supposed to expunge. Creating a mighty mountain out of a trivial molehill is going to push races further apart, not bring them closer together. The law of unintended consquences has never been repealed.



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