As a working-to-middle-class white man, I am of course the most qualified to talk about racial matters…
That was a joke, but time for seriousness. If the Andros Townsend/Roy Hodgson/ Space Monkey thing has taught us anything, other than the media’s desperate thirst for anything that can be linked to or can lead to a “campaign”, it’s that we’re starting to view racial offence and language in a very skewed manner.
For those unfamiliar with the story, apparently Hodgson compared Andros Townsend to a space monkey, and then it all kicked off… Oh, no, wait, the player didn’t take any offence at all at an obviously innocent joke, and then a newspaper decided to make it into a big thing the next day.
Now, I’m all for racial equality, have no racist feelings whatsoever and have no particular ill-feeling towards anyone involved except possibly Roy Hodgson, for entirely unrelated matters (why did you buy Paul Konchesky…) But I do feel this story demonstrates a lot about how society is starting to view race matters, freedom of speech and censorship, and how our current treatment of language in society is actually causing racism to be easier than ever, rather than preventing racist speech altogether.
The question this incident raises, as far as I can see, is one about offence; primarily, where does it originate? Well, it can originate in the speaker, if they are using a hate word or similar in an obviously hateful context; but we can’t stop there, because to say that’s where offence starts and stops is to say that the “It was just a joke” defence is legitimate, which it isn’t (necessarily). So, does it originate in the one who the term is directed toward, then? Firmer ground here; if you take offence at a word, then the feelings caused are real, and measurable (as much as feelings are); it’s then up to you (and, in a wider context, society) to decide how much that feeling matters, and what should be done about it. If I were to say, for example, that Jesus was gay, it might offend you, it might not offend you, and if it does you and society would have to agree on the severity of the offence and any punishment I should have.
Fair enough? Well, I’ll link it back to the Townsend story. The Spurs man says he didn’t take any offence at Hodgson’s utterance, and that he knows Hodgson didn’t mean anything by it. By the terms of the above argument, no offence is caused, not instigated by the offender or taken by the potential offendee. Case closed, then, right?
Except that it has become some kind of offensive, because there seems to be a third audience in which offence can originate, an unreal and non-corporeal and one might even say imaginary one. This third audience is imaginary, or if they are actually out there inflated far beyond their actual scope and importance, because they are created by people who hear a certain word and assume it will cause offence to “someone” because they impose a context on it that isn’t actually there. The word in this case is “monkey”; it’s a word that has, in the past, been used as a racial slur towards black people. What has happened is that some people have imposed this particular connotation on Hodgson’s utterances because they have postulated that some people might be offended by it, and in doing so and publicising it have created an offence where, in neither the eyes of the offended or potential offendee, there was none. And what this is doing is impacting on our freedom of speech, because it means certain words are having contexts assigned to them which are not necessarily there or that should be superseded by other obvious contexts (as in the Hodgson case), and so are being essentially censored.
Now, obviously, I’m not condoning terms when they are used in offensive ways, and sometimes, if no superseding and strong context is given, their historical context can render them offensive even if they weren’t really meant as offensive. Basically, freedom of speech goes as far as someone else’s freedom to not be oppressed goes; my right to extend my arm ends where your face begins, as the saying goes. But in this case, and I think in society as a whole, we’ve gone too far in created this “someone else’s freedom not to be oppressed” by creating a whole new imaginary audience of people to be offended. Just because someone, somewhere, could theoretically take offence at a statement (if they’ve misunderstood the actual events, the actual context, entirely) does not mean that that statement is actually offensive. But in creating this story, in making Hodgson apologise for any offence that might have been caused, any imaginary offence in the imaginary audience that might, with some imagination, have been offended, the media has effectively censored Hodgson, judged that a statement is wrong and so punished him for using it, despite the fact that no offence was actually caused. And it’s happening everywhere; we are being banned from using certain words in case they offend someone, some imaginary person who may or may not actually exist, in order to stop offense being caused.
And the result? It’s now far easier to cause offence than ever before, because when the censor is broken, the taboo transgressed, we know the words will cause offence without any kind of thought being needed behind them. Now that we as a society have created this imaginary offended audience, we’ve imbued hate words with more hateful context, and made even ordinary words like “monkey” into words with racial connotations even when it should be clear, in the circumstances, that there aren’t any. Look, censorship has never worked, freedom of speech is too important and too close to how people construct their sense of self, and that’s not even addressing the argument of “where does it stop”, and why calling someone a monkey is worse than calling someone a cunt (for example, and I’m not expressing my opinion on that particular gem until another day). All it does is impose deeper divisions on a society because the parts who feel they’re being censored start blaming and resenting those who have caused the censorship for, basically, oppressing their rights. And in this case, the people causing the censorship are…well, nobody in fact, but the people seen to be causing the censorship are the imaginary audience made up of people who might be offended by it; in other words, the people who the words refer to in the first place.
What I’m saying in my usual convoluted way there is that stamping down on racist language during incidents that don’t in reality have any racist contexts attached is going to cause more racism, because people will start to blame other races for cutting off their freedom of speech. This, of course, is the opposite of what the people protesting against the language want, and it’s because those people don’t understand how language or people or society work that it’s coming to this. The way to stop racism isn’t to ban or take offence at words, especially when the context isn’t racist, or to divide races by making every issue pertain to race, even when (as in the Hodgson/Townsend case) it really didn’t. The way to stop it is to create a society where race isn’t even seen as an issue, and where people are judged for being people, whatever you call them, and not for the colour of their skin. Racial language won’t be an issue if society doesn’t think in terms of race any more, and making furores over nothing is not going to help us progress towards that utopian goal.
Oh and apologies to anyone this offended, real or imaginary.