Sunday Morning Live, the BBC’s somewhat disorganised weekend discussion programme currently taking the place of The Big Questions, was less unbearable today than it sometimes has been. In fact, I made it through the whole hour.
The subjects discussed were no less contentious and potentially frustrating than ever, but the balance of opinions expressed seemed to veer nearer the sane this morning. Or maybe I was just more awake, and thus more able to articulate my complaints coherently, avoiding the need to simply make some angry noises and switch off.
The primary topic of conversation was John Terry’s recent court victory, in which he was cleared of “racially abusing” another player. Thanks to their commitment to delicacy, the BBC’s own news report on this is rather pleasing:
It was alleged he had insulted Mr Ferdinand in a Premier League match, describing him as “black” and using extreme sexual swear words.
The latter charge is added, as if accusing the man of being black weren’t already bad enough.
The Guardian are less restrained, but the circumstances of the court decision still seem a little convoluted. As far as I can tell, it was never in dispute that Terry uttered the epithet in question, and was addressing Ferdinand while he spoke – but Terry was apparently quoting back words spoken to him, not directing them in the form of an accusation. The context was something like:
What’s that you say? “Fucking black cunt”? No, I think you must be mistaken; I did not refer to you as a fucking black cunt.
At least, there was enough doubt as to the tone and context of the remark that a not guilty verdict had to be returned.
In any case, the debate around the issue has largely been dominated by two camps: those who think that hateful and demeaning language should be strictly policed (while fully supporting people’s right to free speech, of course, with only a minor caveat about “responsibility”), and those who herald free speech as the virtue in most vital need of protecting and refer to playground adages about sticks and stones in order to make their point.
I find myself in uncomfortable company on either side.
In this particular case, I’m not sure I see much point in bothering the magistrates in Westminster with it. There’s no evidence Terry said anything constituting incitement or harassment, so it doesn’t seem to me like it should be a legal matter.
The FA will be continuing their own inquiry, and it seems appropriate for the higher-ups in the field of professional football to come to their own decisions about Terry’s continued involvement. His behaviour was, after all, monumentally out of step with the traditions of camaraderie and mutual respect that typically characterise English football, so if it’s decided that his totally unprecedented expression of belligerence renders him unfit to participate further in the sport, he’s only got himself to blame.
But the free-speech and settle-it-privately arguments shouldn’t be the end of the conversation. The Sunday Morning Live show was still frustrating, because nobody seemed to be drawing the distinction between “unacceptable” and “should be illegal”. It seemed as if legal recrimination were to be considered a vital part of any response to offensive speech, if it should merit a response at all. On the other side of things, nobody legally defending Terry’s words seemed to want to condemn them morally.
Which you really can do, you know. It’s not even that hard. I don’t want John Terry to go to prison because of whatever he said to Anton Ferdinand, but I also don’t want to pass up the chance to point out that his actions make him seem like an obnoxious tit, who is doing far less than someone with his social influence could be doing to counteract the atmosphere of racial disharmony that continues to pervade this country.
The problem with pinning all the importance of the matter on free speech became clearer when one guest suggested we simply be more “mature” about childish things like name-calling – directing this suggestion to the people who make such a fuss about being called names, of course. Once you’ve blamed every victim of verbal abuse ever for having the weakness of will to get upset when dehumanising insults are hurled at them, it may be time to re-evaluate your priorities.
And the problem with leaping to the defence of the beleaguered by ensuring they may never be attacked in such a way again without criminal sanctions being imposed is… well, that you start having people taken to court for possibly referring to a colleague in a competitive game as a “black cunt”.
Which seems like something that’s half empirically true, half a matter of valid opinion.
Racism is an insidious evil. It needs to be watched for and guarded against, and its role in many crimes needs to be considered, as well as its corrosive effect on our attitudes to other human beings. Sometimes – often, in fact – invoking the coercive arm of the law is not the best way to respond to it, but on those occasions we need to respond to it ourselves.
Most racism doesn’t need to be forced out of the public arena by laws that stifle free speech; it needs to be made negligible and irrelevant by the rest of us shouting over it.