Health and safety notice: this article is about racism.
Polite request to The Authorities: please don’t send me to jail.
This BBC report about Liam Stacey, the thick-as-mince biology student jailed for sending racist tweets about the footballer Fabrice Muamba, was worrying for two reasons.
Firstly, I tried really hard to conclude from this report that this dumb racist had committed a criminal offence, but my brain didn’t let me.
Secondly, the reason I found it so hard to reach that conclusion was because the BBC was too scared to provide the details of the tweets in its report.
Things are getting pretty hairy when our public service broadcaster reports on the outcome of a trial which saw a young man imprisoned for saying something, and it won’t even tell us what he said.
This case and its cowardly, hyper-sensitive reporting by the British Backless Corporation further sets in cement what many people are increasingly willing to accept as a disturbing default: that saying something racist is automatically a matter for the criminal law. The report also demonstrates how petrified people are to discuss racism frankly, something I dealt with here.
This rabbit-in-the-headlights approach to discussing such a crucial issue as racism reminds me of a point made by the journalist Nick Cohen at the National Secular Society’s annual conference in September 2011, in the context of Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Cohen explained how blasphemy is not only illegal in that country and punishable by death (as though that were not sufficiently scandalous, illiberal and inhumane), but how merely criticising this law can be a very risky endeavour in itself. Cohen described this as, “blaspheming against the blasphemy law”. I would call it Blasphemy 2.0: not being permitted even to discuss the things you are not permitted to say.
Quick tangent: raising the stakes ever higher in eroding freedom of speech reminds me of an amusing way of categorising the strength of different types of cannabis. At the mild end is the ‘Kashmiri headfuck’, in the middle is the ‘Nepalese train crash’, and at the upper end is ‘global atomic jihad’. But I digress.
I condemn racism and I hate racists but I really, really love freedom of speech and I would much rather hear what racists have to say so that I can respond. Unless someone is inciting violence, or applying violence in conjunction with racism, or unless someone is actually being harassed or discriminated against, the expression of racist views should not be a matter for the law – however offensive those views are.
Criminalising speech does not solve problems. It creates problems.
One of the finest advertisements I have seen for freedom of speech in recent years was the appearance by the BNP’s Nick Griffin on Question Time in 2009 (various videos on YouTube).
Our democracy generously bathed Griffin in limelight and he dutifully responded by…making an arse of himself. His views and arguments were clear for all to see, regardless of his diligent attempts at re-branding the BNP, and with a bit of luck he helped to kill off his beloved party for another generation.
I thought the approach adopted by one of his co-panellists that evening, Bonnie Greer OBE, was the most effective: no ranting, no raving, just calmly euthanizing Griffin with kindness by recommending a book for him to read in order to educate himself. Beautiful.
Depriving Griffin of his freedom of speech (yes, even Griffin has rights; that’s how it works) would have denied us the opportunity to lance this particular boil so publicly and theatrically. After Question Time Griffin could have no complaint that his lawful rights had been infringed. (Those who seek to deprive others of their lawful rights often love to use the vocabulary of rights and democracy in order to do so.)
I am getting rather tired of hearing about football’s apparent problems with racism. I’m sure as an industry it has its issues with racism but I would say football, especially in this country, could fairly be described as a model of racial integration – certainly when compared to other industries.
What other industry can you think of in this country where so many different people from all corners of the globe and of all backgrounds generally mesh together so smoothly (remember this great scene from Harry & Paul, featuring Paul Whitehouse as a football manager?), and where employees even exchange sweat-drenched uniforms at the end of a shift before getting naked with each other?
I say that football’s problem is not racism. I say that football’s problem is homophobia (which is bizarre given the sweat-swapping and nudity, not to mention the regular kissing when goals are scored).
Sadly, there is a marginally higher probability of seeing a human rights law firm called Ahmadinejad, Khomeini & al-Assad than there is of football dealing effectively with homophobia any day soon.
Football – and, crucially, the advertising/marketing industry with which it has a mutually beneficial relationship – can handle racist, illiterate, foul-mouthed, salary-soaked, whore-mongering, violent, unfaithful straight footballers just fine, but it daren’t go anywhere near gay footballers. Remind me again why we call it the ‘beautiful game’?
When was the last time you heard Rio Ferdinand, High Priest of Anti-Racism, condemn explicitly violent homophobic lyrics in the rap music he loves so much?
Come on, Rio. Pipe up, mate. Or is maintaining your street-cred with the rappers you fawn over more precious to you?
Footballers, like the morons who voluntarily shed significant amounts of money for the privilege of blindly worshipping them, can be a fickle bunch.