Sticks, stones and hate speech
The case of a schoolboy prosecuted for calling a playmate 'Paki' has shown up the childish streak in Britain's speech laws.
The 10-year-old boy in Manchester, England, charged with a racially aggravated public order offence for calling a schoolmate ‘Paki’ was just being a typical nasty child.
Kids can’t be racist. Racism means having a conscious opinion about the inferiority of a particular group of people. Children dislike each other because they are fat, or they have an uncool coat, or for no reason at all. Even when they use powerful words, children inject them with their own meaning. When I was at school in Nottingham during the miners’ strike of 1984, we used ‘scab’ as a term of abuse. For adult men, ‘scab’ meant a class traitor who crossed the picket line; for us, it only meant someone who picked up a 2p in the playground.
Yet these schoolboys hauled in by the Greater Manchester Police have appeared grown up compared to the adults running the education and legal systems. The boys have moved on from their playground spat, visiting each other’s houses and playing football together. Yet the police and teaching unions continue to fret about what Boy A said to Boy B between July 2005 and January 2006. This case tells us little about kids, and everything about the childish principles underlying public debate today.
The judge in the case has described it as ‘political correctness gone mad’. But this school was just applying recommended practice, as teaching representatives subsequently piled in to remind him. One pointed out that ‘it’s no longer within the control of the school to handle incidents of racial bullying’ (1). Since April 2004, schools have been required to fill out a racial incident form and undergo strict procedures of investigation (2), and to involve the police if in doubt. Back in February, an 11-year-old was arrested for ‘racially aggravated assault’ on a fellow pupil; a police spokeswoman intoned seriously that the victim ‘suffered a bruised leg after being thrown to the floor’ (3).
Schools are just taking their cues from society at large: hate speech laws treat grown adults as if they were kids in a playground. Banter or insults that in the past would have been brushed off with a smile or a riposte are now made a matter for the police. There was the Oxford student who spent a night in the cells for asking a policeman if his horse was gay; the footballers arrested for carrying a flag that said ‘Fuck off Cardiff’ on it. We’re all treated as vulnerable crybabies, unable to take a harsh word without running off in tears. It’s adults, not children, who have forgotten the playground chant, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones.…’
Hate speech laws encourage different groups to treat the police like playground monitors. Rather than argue issues out and put forward your case, the goal becomes to get officials’ attention and complain that you have been victimised or insulted. In Australia, laws against religious hatred have sparked a spate of bickering between different groups that would make a schoolboy squirm. Christians and Muslims have gone undercover in each other’s religious ceremonies to gain evidence for making complaints (see Warning from Australia: don’t legislate against hate, by Amir Butler). When telling tales becomes the everyday business of political life, small wonder that the police end up in Greater Manchester playgrounds.
Meanwhile, the argument that the boys didn’t understand the meaning of their words simply doesn’t wash when racism is seen as unconscious, beyond the control of the speaker’s rational faculties. The 1999 Macpherson Inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence introduced the concept of ‘unwitting racism’, and argued that racism is in the eye of the beholder. The issue is the signals you are sending out, not the opinions you think you hold – so you can be a racist without realising it. When this is the case, it matters little that schoolboy A didn’t understand the meaning of the term ‘Paki’. When adults are treated as if they know not what they say, children’s banter can be regarded with the utmost seriousness.
What signal are cases like these sending out to children? The message is that parents and teachers can’t teach kids acceptable behaviour themselves, but have to refer them on to the Crown Prosecution Service. This shows an adult society running scared, unable to step in when it hears things that it disagrees with. The full force of the law is dealing with 10-year-olds’ minor misdemeanours because grown men and women feel they cannot.
Boy A and Boy B should be allowed to get on with their fallings out and makings up. And the rest of society should grow up a little.
Josie Appleton is speaking at ‘Why does free speech matter?’, a meeting at the October Gallery in central London on 11 April 2006 organised by the Manifesto Club. For more details, see the Manifesto Club website.
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