Suarez v Evra / Racism in football / Free Speech

I’m going to give my opinion on the recent Suarez/Evra racial abuse incident, racism in general and where freedom of speech and the law should come into it.

What happened between Suarez and Evra?

I’m going to assume the reader is fairly familiar with the situation, but to summarise: Luis Suarez, a Liverpool player, allegedly racially insulted Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. I say ‘allegedly’, because I think we will never know for sure what was said between the two, but having read the evidence presented to the panel and their judgement, I will say that it is hard to defend Suarez. My opinion from the start in this has simply been that a man is innocent until proven guilty. The question for me wasn’t really if Suarez is a racist or not, but whether it could be reasonably proven, since otherwise it’s one man’s word against another, something we don’t usually accept as damning evidence. I think Liverpool FC reacted so strongly to the affair because they felt a miscarriage of justice had occurred. I also felt there was a witch-hunt going on; the perfect chance for the politically-inclined to curry some favour by jumping on the anti-racist bandwagon. Whilst I still believe this, I think it’s hard to defend Suarez.

What I will say is that, ironically, if Suarez completely denied using any racial words at all, he might’ve been acquitted. He admitted using the words but denied there was racist intent. I’m not saying this excuses Suarez, but it does make the incident seem less clear-cut which probably made his supporters feel justified in defending him at first.

The handshake

On Saturday 11th February, Liverpool faced Man Utd at their ground in a League game. By an astonishing coincidence, Sky decided to switch their pre-kickoff advert run to much earlier, before the players even lined up in the tunnel (usually the players walk onto the pinch and Sky cut to commercial for several minutes, then return for the kick-off proper), which meant that the line-up and handshake could be televised live. There are some who suggest that Evra half-heartedly offered his hand or even slightly pulled it away as Suarez approached. This may be true or it might be clutching at straws. Personally, I don’t buy it: his hand is out. In contrast, Suarez made no attempt at all to shake hands with Evra and instead blanked him, continuing down the line. Evra reacted angrily, grabbing Suarez’s arm. Suarez pulled his arm free and continued on.

Now there are two ways to take this: if Suarez is innocent and was convicted on the word of another man and the reasonable certainty of a judiciary panel, his reputation has been tarnished forever. As long as he lives, wherever he plays, he will have the term “racist” hanging over him. If this was me, and I was innocent, I’d have blanked Evra too. Contrastingly, if Suarez was guilty and I was Evra, I would not shake his hand at all! I cannot understand why Evra offered his hand. If he is the victim, the innocent one, then the racist filth of another person isn’t something you should forgive and forget. Suarez should’ve been the one to offer his hand (if guilty) and Evra would’ve been fully justified in ignoring it, given that, remember: Suarez denied the charge of using racist insults, so if he’s guilty it makes him a liar on top of a racist. At the time of the handshake I was actually biased toward Suarez given how the situation played out. What I mean is, if I was one of the parties concerned, it would’ve made more sense for Suarez to not be guilty and snub Evra, than for the innocent Evra to offer his hand and then get so riled up when it was refused.

What I disliked about Evra’s reaction (and I will assume he is in the right), is that if he wanted to be the “bigger man” and offer his hand, why did he then completely lose his temper? Wouldn’t a “bigger man” have given a wry smile or shrug, and simply think “to hell with him!” with all the cameras watching? That would’ve made a bigger impression, in my opinion. His reaction, coupled with his red-mist charge into Suarez which ended up only taking out teammate Ferdinand, and his excessive post-match victory dance appeared to me, not as a man celebrating a football result nor a man celebrating a judicial verdict, but a man whose pride had been wounded and wanted to get even. Again, I could be wrong (and given the evidence I probably am), but that’s how it could look. Having said that, after months of repressed emotion and winning an important game against a fierce rival where a racist abuser tried to embarrass me in public, I might be tempted into a bit of self-righteous gloating myself, understandably.

My personal opinion is that the evidence against Suarez was satisfactory for the verdict. I personally don’t believe Evra should have offered his hand, but it was his choice and he did it. But I also think that, even for an innocent man, his reaction at the end of the game, waving his arms in circles and skipping along the touchline to his fans, inciting their anti-Liverpool venom all the more, and trying to provoke or belittle Suarez, was irresponsible. He is supposed to be a Manchester United captain. Manchester United has been the biggest team in the world for decades, and is arguably only eclipsed in its success and attractive football by Barcelona and Real Madrid – and is this the guy Man Utd fans want as their leader, their talisman, their representative on the pitch? I’m not equating his antics with Suarez’s racism and if he wasn’t the captain I’d be inclined to ignore it, but surely it was out of order and grossly unprofessional?

Speaking of which, if Suarez led his colleagues and superiors to believe he would shake Evra’s hand (which it seems he did) and then refused to – he put them in an unfair and uncomfortable situation and deserves to be punished. It was sly and dishonourable behaviour and he let himself and everyone connected to Liverpool down. He has subsequently apologised for this.

But what I have to point out is the hypocrisy of Sky: despite the presenter, pundits and commentators insisting that “we” talk about football, they did a damn fine job of talking about everything but the football. As I previously said, Sky switched their pre-match commercials to make sure they covered the handshake. They extended the post-match section of their coverage, no doubt anticipating having much to discuss. The post-match interviews glossed over the actual football so we could get to the really juicy stuff.

Reaction

Of course, everyone had an opinion on the incident. Some Liverpool fans fiercely supported Suarez to the death, simply because he is a Liverpool player. Some Manchester United fans had similar support for Evra. Extreme opinions were voiced on both sides, with many clambering to assert what Suarez should or shouldn’t have done and how he should be punished further. (Personally I think that the pre-match handshake in all football games is a farce; another example of bureaucracies having too much time on their hands to invent silly little rituals instead of being an administrative body and nothing else.)

I will always give my honest opinion and be as objective as possible: for a start, I totally reject the suggestion that footballers are responsible for the behaviour of fans, with one exception: encouraging a frenzy by running to the crowd. A hero scoring a goal and running to fans causes them to naturally rush to meet him, which is dangerous. Players are rightly booked for this. This has absolutely nothing to do with referees being “spoil sports” or politically correct or some health and safety nonsense. We have seen the injury and death that can be caused at football matches from stampedes, and they can be caused by anything from gross police negligence to something as innocent as goal scoring. That aside, if you’re a Liverpool fan who sees Evra’s post-match reaction and it enrages you so much that you find the nearest Man Utd fan and hurl a brick at him, the responsibility for that action is as follows: Evra: 0%, You: 100%. Similarly, if you’re a Man Utd fan who is incensed by Suarez’s refusal to shake Evra’s hand, you cannot use this as an excuse for beating up some Liverpool fans. Crimes are not morally transferable, and only in rare and mitigating circumstances are the motives for crimes balanced against the action. Sir Alex Ferguson said that Suarez was a disgrace and “could have caused a riot today.” Well I’m sorry, Alex, you might be right about the “disgrace” part but since when was one man morally accountable for the decisions of another? No, this piece of nonsense needs to go from football and society: you cannot use other people as excuses for your idiotic violence. We don’t accept “he made me hit him!” in the school-ground or from our children, so why is it ok for grown adults in the society to try the same?

Sir Alex Ferguson said that Suarez shouldn’t be allowed to play for Liverpool again, presumably meaning that LFC should eject him. Now, whilst I agree that a club should be picky about the character of player who wears their shirt, the simple fact is: most clubs don’t give a damn who or what a footballer is, only that he makes them successful, so it’s a little odd to start getting morally uppity now, even in the face of racism. It also exposes you to counter-assertions of hypocrisy. Let’s remember that two Manchester United captains in the last 20 years have: performed flying kicks into the necks of opposing spectators and deliberately set out to cause harm to opposing players. Roy Keane’s assault on Alfe-Inge Haaland was as premeditated and vicious an attack as you could see on a football pitch. Off the pitch, this would be treated as grievous bodily harm, carrying a fine and probable jail term. In a civilised society, we allow offensive speech and ban violence, because the former doesn’t violate anyone’s Rights and the latter does. In football, it seems to work the other way around: initiating violence against someone carries a 5 match ban; a racist slur incurs 8. Imagine if the law in everyday life worked this way! Some might say that violence is violence and happens in life but racism is a social evil that should be eliminated. Well this is my opinion: both are evil but violence is socially worse. Why? Evil opinions can (and should) be legally permitted because they can be defeated by reason and non-violent means. Violence can never be legally permitted because it destroys reason, can only be stopped by more physical force, and invariably leads to more violence. I’ll go into this in more detail later, but if you disagree, think about this: would you rather someone approach you on the street and insult you, or break your legs?

On the subject of players representing a club, in football “we” seem to allow: violence, cheating, name-calling, unsporting behaviour and sociopaths, but a racist slur should be grounds for immediate dismissal? And I am not claiming that they are one and the same or morally equal, but let’s be clear what we’re talking about here: there are a great number of disgraceful things that football clubs happily turn a blind eye to. And if you think that a racist insult is necessarily worse than trying to hurt another human being, you should be prepared to fully justify that position, if you can.

The Government and Free Speech

The PFA Executive Gordon Taylor said “the situation is running away with us and this isn’t healthy for football, particularly with the government looking into the governance of football”, which probably explains why so many people in positions of power are worried about the situation. What no one is asking is why the government is poking its nose into the administration of a sport!  Don’t our politicians have anything better to do? I would think economic crisis and national security should be enough to be getting on with, but if they’re that bored I encourage them to please consider getting a proper job. If I were Taylor I’d politely tell the government to mind its own damn business, but that  might affect all the State parties and gatherings that FA executives and footballers get invited to huh?

The racism in football issue is another excuse for the government to extend its power over free speech. There are some well-intentioned individuals whose natural reaction to racism is to call for more laws and government action. You are not helping anyone. Before anyone objects, can we all just agree at the outset that racism is evil and should be socially unacceptable? Now that that’s over with, let’s get back to the very basics:

Why is racism a bad thing?

So many opinions float around in a vacuum, taken for granted or as self-evident truths. But it is not self-evident that racism is evil. It is not self-evident that rape is evil. Why? Because “racism is bad” is not a moral primary. “Rape is bad” is not a moral primary. Rather, racism and rape are violations of the most basic pro-human virtue: rationality. For example: “physical force” is not itself bad, as a primary. If it were, it would be wrong to lock criminals up or punish them no matter what they did. Physical force is acceptable, as long as it’s not initiated. Therefore, we are justified in locking a criminal up (or killing him), but not an innocent man. Therefore, rape isn’t evil simply because it’s physical force, but because it is necessarily the initiation of force against an innocent; it’s a violation. It is evil because it is anti-human.

Racism is evil, not because it violates Rights (it doesn’t) but because it’s anti-human. Racism is probably the most profound and stupid example of irrationality in existence, which says: “just because someone has different skin colour or was born elsewhere, they can be judged as individuals”. It is the judgement of a man’s character based on his geography or bloodline. It is irrational; it is anti-human; it is evil. But what racism is not, in itself, is a violation of anyone’s Rights. Fascists will disagree, but the government’s job is to protect Rights, not to police acceptable speech. This is why racism cannot be a crime.

The principle of freedom of speech is not to preserve or encourage popular or admirable opinions (although that is a natural consequence) but to prevent unpopular opinions from being suppressed, however ridiculous or inhuman they may be. The idea of free speech allowing everything, except the stuff we really really don’t like, is a contradiction in terms! Either everything is legally permissible to say, or none of it is. And before I get accused of creating a false dilemma: I’m not; there is no objective standard by which to determine what speech should and shouldn’t be acceptable, since any opinion in the world is potentially offensive to someone somewhere. All that truly exists is what some politician decides based on the votes he’s trying to win, or the “popular opinion” of the time, a fallacy which says that something is true simply because enough people think it is. Remember that in the past what we would consider racist was the general opinion, even from the intellectuals at the time. Even as recently as a few decades ago, the popular opinion of homosexuals and sexual equality was what we’d now call archaic.

The beauty of the “freedom of speech” principle is that it protects us all from whatever mob, whatever dictator, whatever bureaucrat, whatever despot, whatever faction, decides our opinion is a threat to them and wants to stamp it out. (It also prevents the government giving special favours to those opinions it wants to encourage.) The more ridiculous (or evil) an opinion, the more important it is to not censor it. Why? First, because trying to ban an opinion is impossible anyway. Opinions are individual matters which arise from a person’s choices and premises (conscious and unconscious). Second, because trying to blacklist an opinion (or anything) creates a black market; you drive it underground where it meets the worst of humanity. Third, you discourage honest debate. For example, if someone is truly racist and honestly believes that nationality or race plays a part in the judgement of another individual (these people are far more common than you realise), it is all the better to let them speak and offer their arguments so that they can be defeated. If someone says “it’s obviously true that black people are mentally inferior to whites”, do not silence him! Do not give him the “respect” that many a brave voice in history was met with: censorship. Do not plant the seed in another’s mind that “maybe he has a point?!” Rather, let him speak and explain himself, and then show why he is totally and utterly wrong. Blast the argument in public for all to see for all time. But do not simply ban it, or treat him like a criminal for holding an opinion (even an evil one).

(As an aside, I should mention that the only exceptions to free speech in any form are libel and slander, which are rightly illegal.)

We can already see around the world our governments taking measures to control speech and the mediums of speech, the best example of which being the internet. It is not that our governments are necessarily fascist and wicked (though some politicians are), but because they simply assume that moral evils are the remit of the government to police. And when the average citizen agrees and even calls for it, how can we expect anything else?

The government has no job banning and criminalising any speech. It is a slippery slope we are already going down, where the government penalising particularly motivated-actions over others necessarily leads to the home of motives: thoughts. And if the government bans one, it will sooner or later try to control the other.

Hate crime and hypocrisy

Today in England, a “hate crime” is treated more seriously than a “normal crime”. Presumably, if you violate someone else’s Rights you are super-duper guilty if you did it for racist reasons. Interestingly enough, what this means is that if you’re the same colour as your attacker he is less accountable for his violence than if you or he were a different colour. In other words, people of a different race are more or less guilty than others, all other things being the same. What’s that word for pre-judgment based on race again?

But the elephant in the room that no one is talking about, and which is uncomfortable to discuss for obvious reasons is: why is a cruel and irrational insult against a person acceptable for some reasons and not others? Some footballers have been treated to disgraceful abuse at football grounds, not because of their colour or character or behaviour, but their sexuality. Why is this any different to racism? Aren’t both attacks on an individual based on un-chosen and arbitrary traits? Aren’t both anti-human? Continuing this theme, why is it less frequently condemned when insults are for being: fat, thin, short, tall, attractive, ugly, butch, effeminate etc – most of the time attributes also outside anyone’s control? Of course most decent people would reply “well they aren’t acceptable either” – but the truth is we do view them differently and no matter how hurtful an insult is we are generally told “brush it off, ignore it”, unless it’s racist.

I haven’t established the difference clearly in my head, but if you seriously discriminate against another, or abuse them, what does the particular subject of abuse matter? I welcome an honest answer.

I have many foreign friends, and it’s not uncommon to hear “you Swedish bastard!”; “you Czech retard!”; “you Welsh sheep-shagger”; “you stoned Dutch idiot!”, between us. If any of these insults, albeit in jest, included a reference to colour they would probably be considered racist. But what is the difference? If a genuine light-hearted joke can include reference to someone’s race – then what difference does it make what the race is? I am not saying there isn’t a difference, but if there is I’m having a hard time seeing it. Again, I welcome an honest answer.

Of course historically race has been far more divisive with human beings than gender and other physical attributes – no doubt why it is such a sensitive and inflammatory topic. I can certainly appreciate the emotive nature of colour-related racism. But we’d all agree that racism isn’t primarily a “colour issue”, it’s an issue between any two peoples of different nationality, culture, location or language. So again: if racism isn’t necessarily a colour issue why do “we” assume it is by allowing other kinds of race-related banter, except where colour is concerned?

You see, there is a danger of going too far to the other extreme. In fact, the debate is not: ‘racism is ok’ or ‘racism should be banned’, the debate is: ‘free speech of any kind should not be banned’ versus ‘some speech should be criminalised and some shouldn’t’. The danger is in fact seeing the world in terms of skin colours which is just what racism is. Like any movement to counter discrimination, it can become paranoid and see villains in every decision, enemies around every corner.

Racists see the world as a conglomeration of accents, nationalities, histories and colours – which of course it is, but that is all they see. They think of you, not as you the individual but you the white, the black, the Asian, the American etc; incidents outside your choice are relevant to their judgment of you. The politically-correct multiculturalists are so desperate to not appear like the racists, they pretend that there are absolutely no differences at all between people and insist on a “colour blind” world. Worse, they favour positive-discrimination which is just another form of racism.

But people are different! Not being a bigot isn’t ignoring someone else’s differences, it’s accepting that we human beings are a varied bunch – and not giving a damn about it: another person’s race, or colour, like their accent or birthplace, sexuality or gender, shouldn’t be something we tiptoe around but simply irrelevant in our judgement of them. Gay, straight, fat, thin, black, white, yellow, tall, short, intelligent or dumb – if you’re a monster you should be damned and if you’re virtuous you should be praised. Everything else, everything you didn’t choose, is irrelevant.

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