After Hate Speech, the war against ‘Mate Speech’

As the language police turn their attention to banter between buddies and football-ground chants, no area of life is safe from the censors.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Talk about a slippery slope.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, governments in the West have instituted laws against ‘Hate Speech’. To varying degrees they have criminalised the use of racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic or anti-religious words by groups or individuals on the basis that they might incite hatred and possibly even violence against vulnerable minorities.

Now, if recent cases in Britain are anything to go by, the language police are turning their attentions to what we might call ‘Mate Speech’. They’re cracking down on banter between buddies, throwaway chants at football matches, and words uttered in informal, behind-the-scenes settings, on the basis that someone somewhere, if they ever caught drift of these words, might possibly be offended by them.

Welcome to the humourless society, where no off-the-cuff remark, gag or utterance is beyond the sanction of the sanctimonious word-watchers.

Last week, Conservative MP and former army colonel Patrick Mercer was sacked from the Front Bench by party leader David Cameron for saying the words ‘black bastard’ in an interview with The Times. Mercer said: ‘If someone is slow on the assault course [in army training], you’d get people shouting: “Come on you fat bastard, come on you ginger bastard, come on you black bastard.”’ Cameron said Mercer’s words were ‘completely unacceptable’ and within three hours of their being published in The Times he had kicked Mercer out of the shadow cabinet.

Also last week, eight schoolboys aged 15 and 16 were arrested in Hertfordshire, England after a couple of them chanted ‘Yid Army’ at a leaving do for Jewish teacher David Appleman. ‘Yid Army’ is a knowing term used by fans of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club to describe themselves, in recognition of the fact that much of Spurs’ traditional support came from the Jewish community in north London. Apparently Mr Appleman was ‘smiling and shaking hands with the boys’ when the incident occurred, but when he later saw a video of it on YouTube he made a complaint to the police.

Meanwhile, the police force investigating allegations of racist behaviour in the Celebrity Big Brother house in January have announced that they’re dropping the case. Who can forget the CBB incident (however much we might have tried), when an argument over Oxo cubes between reality TV has-been Jade Goody and Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty – which reached its heady conclusion when Goody said the phrase ‘Shilpa Poppadom’ – caused an international stink? The Crown Prosecution Service said that while what occurred in the house ‘was clearly offensive, it was not criminal’.

Phew. It’s not a crime – yet – to say someone’s name and then put the word ‘Poppadom’ after it.

Perhaps the most striking thing about these ‘Mate Speech’ incidents is the separation of words from intent. No one really thinks Patrick Mercer is a racist. Even those denouncing him for using ‘insensitive words’ point out that he isn’t racist and has probably done some good work in the army. The schoolboys chanting ‘Yid Army’ were using a football-ground chant that is not remotely anti-Semitic in intent; indeed it is chanted by Jewish fans of Tottenham Hotspur. And the police investigating the CBB affair have failed to uncover any evidence that the words used in the house – which ranged from ‘liar!’ and ‘fake!’ to a suggestion that Shilpa Shetty should ‘spend a day in the slums’ – had racist underpinnings.

The lack of any racist intent is clear from the fact that there are no ‘victims’ in these cases. Mercer did not say ‘black bastard’ to one of his black constituents or to a black journalist; he merely described, in a quiet and polite interview with The Times, what sometimes gets said on army training courses. Likewise, despite their best efforts, the police looking into CBB did not find anyone who thought they were a victim of racism. In interviews with the housemates, ‘everyone stated that they had not witnessed or perceived they were the victim of any racist behaviour’.

It would seem that schoolteacher David Appleman did not think of himself as a victim of an anti-Semitic slur at the time that the schoolkids were chanting ‘Yid Army’, but later changed his mind when he saw a video on YouTube. And now there are demands for Spurs fans to rethink their ‘Yid Army’ tag, despite the fact that no one in Spurs circles thinks of it as an insult that harms them: they’re the ones who chant it!

The fact that you can have an outcry, even a police investigation, over words that are not racist in intent, and which have not harmed anyone, takes censorship to a terrifying new level. These days, it doesn’t matter what your words mean, or who you say them to. It doesn’t even matter if they are true; for example, whether you think it is right or wrong that this kind of thing happens, Patrick Mercer is no doubt correct to state that during army training the phrase ‘come on you black bastard’ is used to spur on black soldiers doing obstacle courses. Rather it is assumed that there are certain words and phrases you simply cannot say these days – anywhere, anytime, to any person, or for any reason whatsoever.

So Jade Goody may not have been racist when she said ‘Shilpa Poppadom’, but you just cannot use cultural references to have a pop at people you don’t like these days. Patrick Mercer was not being racist when he pointed out that those responsible for training soldiers sometimes say ‘come on you black bastard’, but you cannot say those two words – ‘black bastard’ – anymore. The ‘yiddos’ of the Yid Army have ‘taken back’ the word yid and turned it into a badge of footballing pride – but don’t they know that you shouldn’t say the word yid in any context or at any time?

Some are understandably perplexed by this censorship of individuals who have not attacked or slurred anyone else (and who are sometimes referring to themselves!). In The Sunday Times, Rod Liddle confesses to being ‘poleaxed by the strange logic’ behind the Mercer incident, where a shadow cabinet minister is given the boot for saying something that was intended to be neither racist nor offensive, but rather was an attempt to ‘explain, with candour, what he’d observed during his time serving this country as a soldier’. Where does this perplexing censorship come from?

The idea that words can be offensive, even racist, even if they are not intended as such – and even if they are not aimed at anyone else or if the person they are aimed at does not consider them to be racist or harmful – was institutionalised by the Macpherson Report of 1999. Based on an inquiry into the investigation of the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in London, the Macpherson Report established a new definition of a racist crime and racist slur. It said that an incident should officially be deemed racial if anybody – not just the victim, but ‘anybody else’ – considers it to be racial. Such a sweepingly relativistic view of offensive speech and criminal action has become institutionalised in policing, politics and public debate in Britain.

And it has given rise to a stultifyingly censorious climate.

Speech is no longer a matter for the speaker and the listener; rather it has been laid open to third parties, to the perceptions, sensitivities and judgements of ‘anybody else’.

So what was once par for the course on army training courses – where soldiers may have been called ‘ginger bastard’ or ‘black bastard’ in order to toughen them up – is now seen as ‘completely unacceptable’ because others outside of the army culture judge it to be racist. Where Shilpa Shetty did not consider Jade Goody’s mouthy insults to be racist, they were still widely discussed as such – by numerous journalists, quango officials and politicians – because people outside of the CBB house perceived them as racist. And while ‘yid’ is used as a term of endearment by Spurs fans – tough, because there are people outside of Spurs who reckon it is anti-Semitic and thus should never be uttered.

In post-Macpherson Britain, ‘offence’ is no longer something specific between two parties, where one person might intend offence and another person might take it. Rather, offence has become a moral judgement that can be made by anyone against your words and their meaning. Words are no longer judged in context, or in terms of the impact they made on the person they were aimed at; rather they are judged by an ever-broadening category of offensiveness that can be wielded by anybody who heard your words, whether in person or, in the case of Patrick Mercer, through a newspaper story, or in the case of CBB over the TV airwaves.

This policing of our words by the catch-all category of ‘anybody else’s offence’ alienates us from what we think, say and believe. Our words are no longer our own; anyone who hears them can attach a meaning and intention to them, beyond what we ourselves meant and intended. This massively dents our right to speak freely with one another, and it undermines our own responsibility for what we say. Apparently it is no longer for us to decide with our friends or colleagues or fellow football fans what kind of words and phrases to use, and how and when to use them; rather it is the judgements of others that really count. And, of course, it will always be the most over-sensitive souls, those who make a profession of seeking out and exposing ‘offensive words’, who will butt into our everyday exchanges and declare that they are offensive.

I always hated the campaigns against Hate Speech. They were underpinned by an insulting view of the public, who were thought to be easily cajoled into becoming hate-fuelled racists or anti-Semites. And they were more concerned with brushing prejudice under the carpet – silencing its practitioners – rather than having the argument out and really doing something to challenge inequality. The new campaign against ‘Mate Speech’ that the post-Macpherson politics of offence has given rise to is far, far worse. It has turned ‘offence’ from something real and direct into a free-floating moral code that can be used to judge anybody’s words at any time. And it intrudes into the most intimate aspects of our lives.

When any words said by anyone in any context can be perceived by anybody else who hears them, or who hears of them, as offensive, then really no area of life is free from censorship: not the football stadium, the workplace cafeteria, the rough and tumble of a training course, the school playground. And when our words can end up being judged as racist and harmful even when we meant them innocently, the end result can only be self-doubt and self-policing: we become uncertain about what to say and when to say it. We internalise the new censoriousness; our words stick in our throats.

This is deeply troubling. We need areas of life that are free from the judgements of officialdom. It is in these areas where we experiment with words and ideas and forge friendships with like-minded individuals. Football fans bond through stadium chants; soldiers become a coherent squadron by developing their own codes of conduct and lingo, however bizarre they might seem to the rest of us; schoolchildren take risks with words in the playground, away from the formal, stuffy classroom. Closing down these informal arenas – by opening them up to the sensibilities of ‘anybody else’ – is not only illiberal; it does harm to our ability to make and sustain real and humane relationships.

It is time we took back responsibility for working out amongst ourselves what we should think and say, and responsibility for the consequences of our utterances. Our thoughts and words should not be the business of ‘anybody else’, that sly codeword for the new thought and speech police who believe they know what’s best.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Maria Grasso said it was so gay to ban the use of the word ‘gay’ on campus in Oxford. Brendan O’Neill attacked the hate-obsessed state. Steve Bremner laid into liberal commentators’ ‘pick’n’mix attitude’ to freedom of speech. Or read more at: spiked issue Free speech.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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