With all the publicity surrounding the Terry/Ferdinand and Suarez/Evra incidents in English football’s Premier League, exacerbated a tad further by soccer pundit Alan Hansen’s reference to black players as “coloured”, the racism issue has been well and truly in the news during recent weeks.
On top of the various happenings in the world of football we have also recently witnessed the conviction and imprisonment of two of Stephen Lawrence’s killers and a viral YouTube video apparently showing a white woman from South London, Emma West, gratuitously abusing black and minority ethnic passengers on a tram.
Odd as it may sound to some coming from a former officer of a racist political party I have never believed that society should tolerate racially motivated abuse. A person is what a person is and there are absolutely no circumstances in which it can be considered acceptable to insult another human being for something they are as opposed to something they have done.
Equally though I am instinctively averse to the absurdity that has become known to us all as “political correctness”. But what precisely is this absurdity which it is my default to reject, and is it not something of a contradiction to be repulsed both by racism and by the dogma that claims for itself the authority to identify and to condemn it?
A clue to this apparent dilemma may be found amid the various controversies that have dominated the sports columns. Let us look first of all at the incident involving Chelsea defender John Terry and Anton Ferdinand of Premier League newcomers Queen’s Park Rangers. It is not for me to prejudge the question of Terry’s guilt or innocence. That will be done by a court of law in the fullness of time. However the allegation is that Terry subjected Ferdinand to a torrent of what would clearly be considered racist abuse. If Terry is guilty it would be difficult to make any kind of case in defence of his actions or even in mitigation. It is surely not “political correctness” to insist that any such abuse be dealt with with the full force of the law.
The Luis Suarez case could be said to be a little different. He freely admits to having referred to Manchester United defender Patrice Evra as “negrita”, meaning “negro”, not once but several times, but insists that in his native Uruguay the use of the word is meant as a term of endearment and that there was no intention to insult.
Alan Hansen’s use of the word “coloured” was clearly wrong, as indeed he accepts. He has publicly apologised for doing so. Once again it was argued, and the consensus seems to be to accept, that no insult was intended. He could have pointed out in his defence that in the United States the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is widely supported by members of the African-American community who clearly do not consider the term to be derogatory. Hansen’s mistake was in not having moved with the times.
The need to respect our fellow human beings and not to abuse or insult them for what they are does of course extend beyond ethnicity. Words such as “spastic” are considered inappropriate and offensive when used in reference to somebody who is disabled. There was a time, certainly still in my lifetime, when it was used by sufferers of a condition to describe themselves.
So it is on the question of culture and ethnicity. Most people of my generation will remember a sitcom called Love Thy Neighbour, serialised on mainstream television, which was littered from start to finish with the most appalling racist abuse, not just as an occasional aside but as the central theme of the programme. Even the famously liberal writer and comedian John Cleese felt it acceptable to include the words “n****r” and “w*g”, referring respectively to West Indians and Indians, in his hilarious Fawlty Towers classic “The Germans”. I recall one of our history teachers at school, a progressive Labour-supporting type, playing a tape recording of the whole episode to us (Asian pupils included) during a break in one lesson as an example of what he considered to be fine comedy.
Today most of us would wince at this terminology. I still feel uncomfortable and self-conscious when watching this scene, and I doubt whether I could even watch Love Thy Neighbour, far less find it funny. So does this mean the “politically correct” have got it right?
The answer is probably yes, in terms of the need to engender respect and eradicate abuse. The problem with “political correctness” is that its adherents have elevated it to a cult and in so doing would appear to have entirely overlooked the essential truth that underpins it, viz. that it is not the words one uses that renders a comment inappropriate so much as the spirit in which they are used. A word is, after all, no more than a sequence of letters. It is not at all unreasonable for one to argue that the same word that causes so much offence today may have been less insulting a generation ago, or that a word that is used by a group of people to describe themselves in one society might be considered offensive in another.
The “politically correct”, in my view, have never been properly able to grasp this. As they preen themselves with their own self-bestowed moral superiority and presume the right to lecture lesser beings as to what is the precise, correct term to use in reference to which category of people they generally speaking miss the point. That point being that the need to treat others with respect as human beings is already obvious to all but the most bigoted, and that we do not require a self-appointed political elite to make that point to us, or to provide us with a list of which words we may or may not use in order to make ourselves acceptable to them (which they quite strangely assume to be our aspiration).
Our society needs to take a no-nonsense, zero tolerance approach to racism and to all other forms of discrimination, but to do this successfully it needs to do it whilst retaining a sense of humour, a sense of proportion, grace and a touch of humility.
Just possibly the “politically correct” could learn to take bigotry more seriously if they were take themselves a little less seriously.