When John Terry allegedly called fellow footballer Anton Ferdinand a ‘fucking black cunt’ last year, the nation did a collective gasp of outrage. The pitch has always been home to high tensions and low behaviour, but moving swiftly from adulterer to racist was not the kind of transfer many had forecast for the Chelsea defender.
The trial, which began today, sees John Terry accused of a racially aggravated public order offence: a crime whose maximum punishment is a £2,500 fine and no possibility of a jail term. But what I can’t understand is how, should Terry have simply called Ferdinand a ‘fucking cunt’, he would have been completely spared reprimand and got off scot-free. I don’t mean to suggest that footballers should be tried for cursing at each other, but there needs to be some kind of standardisation against foul language that is far more inclusive.
At this point in time, we do not know the verdict and whether Terry in fact did use Ferdinand’s race as a target for insult. I’m not sure, however, that it really matters. By all accounts, Terry is no saint, and his behaviour both on and off the pitch in recent years has been less than exemplary. But what seems somewhat inconsistent is the way in which the British public are formally disciplined for use of unsavoury language. Every day, there are a number of utterly vile outpourings both online and on the streets that involve people being mercilessly verbally abused. I cannot comprehend that it is acceptable, or at least can go without any kind of rebuke, if people use any and every foul word under the sun as long as it doesn’t refer to a person’s race.
I of course have no idea what Terry’s feelings are towards people of other races, but as someone with an apparent tendency for profanities, this particular instance just seems to be an example of his ignorance. In the heat of the moment, and amidst the taunts being levelled at him by Ferdinand, it might just be that he is an idiot, as opposed to a racist. This doesn’t make his behaviour right by any stretch of the imagination, but punishable by law? I’m not convinced.
I have tried to formulate some kind of reasoning for why using the word ‘black’ as part of an insult is deemed so ‘obscene’ (as the Mirror’s headline reads) in today’s society. On the one hand, as the colour of one’s skin is something people are born with, it seems little different than using hair colour or something of that ilk as part of an affront. On the other, race is something that is deeply entrenched in global social history, and as such, some still feel the sting of past prejudices. The vast majority of the world is no way near as progressive or accepting as it needs to be, and for those in minorities, feeling like those opinions are still rife must cut pretty deep.
In this case, though, things seem slightly different. Terry was not exhibiting any kinds of distaste towards black players in general, or making a comment that played upon former injustices that may have aggrieved generations of people (as tweets from disgraced student Liam Stacey did). To my mind, using the word ‘black’ in the way Terry is alleged to have done could be substituted for ‘ginger’ or any other adjective that in many ways shows society’s insecurities, and its frenetic desire to display racial tolerance, as the real reason behind these harsh punishments.
Unfortunately, the lines between racism, ignorance and abuse have become too blurred to punish people appropriately much of the time. A fantastic post written in The Guardian today by Mehdi Hasan talks of the online trolling he is subjected to, which sees him regularly called a Jihadist and extremist simply for being a Muslim. In a response written by the ever subtle-as-a-sledgehammer Rod Liddle, he (condescendingly) makes the point that journalists are all subject to online abuse, it is simply the content that differs as it is made more personal to the attacked. Whilst I disagree with much of what Liddle says, and don’t believe someone’s race should be used against them in any way, ultimately we should have a duty to crack down on all forms of abuse, and not just that aimed at ethnic minorities. The amount of disgusting filth regularly doled out against women, homosexuals and any other group who happen to be the target of the day is simply unacceptable, and if someone can call another a ‘fucking gay cunt’ and get away with it, I struggle to see how Terry’s alleged racism is any worse.