Friday, 15 April 2011

Prejudice on the terraces

I have written on a number of occasions about political issues especially when they interplay with the game of football.  Most obviously, I have written many times about homophobia in football. With this in mind, I note with interest that players of the calibre and stature of Lineker, King and Lampard are not so readily appearing in such videos to stamp out homophobia in the game*.

I should note that this piece does not use use euphemism or niceties. I think it is important to use the words that people use and, if that offends people, I apologise but unless we engage with these words head on we really don't have the simplest chance in winning the battle against racism.

Racists do not say ''the n word'', ''the y word'' or ''the p word'' or any of the other sanitised things we use as metaphorical earmuffs for our sensibilities. They say horrible words, filthy words. They say 'Yid'. They say 'Paki'. They say 'Nigger'. It might be horrible but let's not dress it up.

Let's call their bluff, point out what they actually say and hope that if they don't change their ways they will at least crawl back under their rock with a look of shame on their face and the sound of our laughter ringing in their ears.

The Last Bastion of Racism in The English Game?

My take on racism is different, I suppose, than that of most people. I do not believe, for example, if someone abuses me for being English whilst living in Scotland that they are being ''racist'' because I do not believe the English are a race (I don't actually really believe that the human species can be subdivided into races but that's for another debate...). The person doing the abusing may well be a racist, he (and it usually is a he) is undoubtedly a prize twat but I'm not sure he is racially abusing me.

I point this out merely because lots of people seem to be believe the opposite. I should also state that I don't see any clear moral difference between racism and any other of the myriad kinds of venomous abuse that is motivated by background.

The general understanding of what racism is can be fairly elastic. Rangers fans singing 'The Famine Song' are viewed, by many, to be racist (again, I think they are moronic and deeply offensive but I'm not sure - in this instance - they are racist). The Crown Prosecution Service did not think that Spurs fans singing ''your dad washes elephants, your mum's a whore' at Emmanuel Adebayor was racist even if many in this country may have disagree with that analysis. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service prosecuted a gentleman in Scotland for calling Craig Bellamy a ''Welsh Bastard''.

Again, I point these examples out to show that sometimes 'what racism is?' in footballing terms is not necessarily clear-cut. 

That said, over recent days, a debate has raged as to whether English football can rid itself of antisemitism which, to many people, is the last bastion of large-scale racist tendencies in the upper echelons of the footballing world. Happily, the days of large-scale crowds booing, jeering and abusing black players is all but gone even if individual and small-scale incidents continue. Antisemitism seems to be alive and well.

Within this there is a deeper issue: can football simultaneously say that one set of fans chanting ''Yid Army'' is acceptable but that another set of fans chanting ''Yiddo'' is racial abuse and therefore unacceptable?

We have been here before. Chris Rock does a good line about white people complaining about not being able to use the word 'nigger'. Equally, a Gay bar in Manchester calling itself Queer is quite different to a homophobe screaming ''queer'' at a group of homosexuals.

It is well-known that minority or oppressed groups will often reclaim abusive and derogatory words and make them their own. There are any number of linguistic and sociological reasons for this occurring. And this leads us to a rather thorny series of questions: Do words hurt? Is it the word that matters or the intention of its user? Does the use of a particular word by an oppressed group validate its use by all? Or is this all a big jape that undermines the current power and meaning of a word?

My general view is that freedom of speech means nothing at all if we can then censor anyone who says things we disagree with. That ship seems to have sailed...

But Spurs fans get to say it...

What we do know is that Spurs fans do chant the word. I know a good number of Spurs fans - some Jewish, most not - and most have at some point drunkenly chanted ''Yid Army''. Further examples include one of the better Spurs blogs is run ''You'll win nothing with Yids'' and is run by ''Yids''. My understanding is that in a footballing sense the original ''Yid Army'' was a Spurs hooligan gang. It must be remembered that noisy fans are a useful masking effect (as those who undertake a minute's applause rather than a minute's silence well know). There are likely to be many Spurs fans - both Jew and Gentile - who find their own fans use of the word distasteful yet their silence will not be enough to change attitudes.

I do not know enough about Spurs fans to know whether they chant these terms as a way of defusing the power of opposition abuse; or through irony; or through leaden sarcasm; to turn it into a unifying cry or for any other reason. Nor do I know when they started, as a wider group, such chanting.

If we accept that Spurs fans (and not only Jewish Spurs fans) can chant ''Yid'' which, I admit, is a big ''if'' we are surely accepting that it is not the word that is the problem but rather how the word is used and the motivation and intention behind its use. We are moving to a situation where the use of the word is validated in some instances and not in others.

There is nothing, per se, wrong with such an approach but it is clearly a problematic one within the game of football. How can the police or stewards reasonably enforce such a system? When is a fan being ironic? When is a fan using a word to undermine would be oppressors? When is a fan using the word offensively?

What happens if a Spurs fan is singing ''Yiddo'' in the street? Should he be arrested? What happens if a Chelsea fan is singing ''Yiddo'' in the street? Should he be arrested?

But what if the Chelsea fan is Jewish?


You will also notice, from that video, that no Jews appear. It is not as though football is short of potential Jewish voices to help that campaign. The English game is a better place for having Jewish footballers, Jewish managers, Jewish owners and Jewish fans.


MattKenny89 said...

I think the problem with the word 'Yid' is that a lot of the Spurs fans that chant it don't understand that it could be causing offence to other members of their support.

I know quite a lot of Spurs fans, none Jewish, and all of them refer to themselves and their team as 'Yids'. I don't think they or a lot of Tottenham fans see it as offensive, when really it is.

Jack McInroy II said...

Lots of interesting points raised. I wonder sometimes if fans of other clubs realise how huge a percentage of fans at games join in with 'yid army' or 'Jermain Defoe, he's a yiddo'. Thousands of people. As far as I can tell almost as many people sing those songs as 'Come on you Spurs' or 'Spurs are on their way to Wembley'.

That, perhaps, isn't the main point, but while there may be Jewish Spurs fans who don't like the use of the word (and I respect their opinion) there doesn't seem to me to be a major divide in terms of whether people think the word is offensive or not.

I'm currently in the middle of writing a blog on this very subject that I'll post in the morning. Just to clarify I don't call myself yids, its just that youllwinnothingwithyids was too many characters for a twitter address. You'll Win Nothing With Yids is very much written by Jack McInroy.

Jonathan said...

Whilst comparisons with other derogatory terms which have been 'reclaimed' are apt, the issue is blurred because of course not all Spurs fans are Jewish.
I think you're correct in saying Spurs fans' use of the word yid is distasteful though - I'd say that it falls somewhere short of being downright offensive.
A good read as always, cheers.

Anonymous said...

What is important is not the word, but the context in which the word is used. There are no words which are illegal to use.

Anonymous said...

I think your article has some good points, and I also realised when watching the video that there were no Jewish players in it, which I thought was odd, as it is an issue affecting them.
Furthermore I think that this video seems to be focussing very much on Tottenham fans, who do not use the word "Yid" with any venom. It was used as an insult towards us in the 1970s and 80s and then Spurs fans adopted it as their own, so as to identify with their club and their club's Jewish history. I could not say how Jewish fans feel about this, and would be very interested to know.
I think the campaign should focus less on the actual word "Yid" and more on songs like that one about Auschwitz in the video which is utterly disgusting. By just targeting one word I think they will not achieve much, other than being able to say they are combating Anti-Semitism.

Dan Bradley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Bradley said...

Nice post Rob.

To my mind the kick racism out of football advert highlights a flaw in the way the game’s establishment try to address these issues. Presumably, what we all want is that anyone from any background should feel that they can play the game, manage teams or attend matches without suffering fear, intimidation or excessive abuse. Given that a sizable vocal minority will always drown out the silent majority, we take everyone with us in order to achieve anything.

Given that I'm not Jewish, I could be spectacularly wrong here, but I suspect that the majority of people attending a Spurs game understand that the term ‘Yid’ is generally being used as to refer to a Spurs fan and not a Jew. Any Jewish people who are offended by this are, for good or for ill, stuck in the same position as blacks who don't consider themselves to be anyone's nigga or homosexuals who wouldn't set foot in a bar called queer. It's the price we pay living in a country where people are free to use language in different ways that have individual meanings for them.

I suspect that many football fans, who choose to think about it, would probably agree with that or a similar sentiment. Given that most football fans don't choose to think about it and aren't giving any consideration to what they’re singing after the groupthink of being in a crowd sets in, I think it's foolish to attempt to stop the kind of chants that will, at worst, offend a tiny minority of those who would attend a football game.

What the football establishment should do instead, is to focus a proportionate response on the truly horrific chanting that does ruin the enjoyment of those who would otherwise take pleasure out of the beautiful game:

• References to actual tragedies Munich/Hillsborough/Heysel (these should be abhorrent to all football fans especially given the high chance that relatives of the dead may well be within earshot/watching at home)

• Racist/Homophobic/Sectarian slurs where the targets are either specific people (players/managers) or the minority group (such as in the gas chamber chant highlighted in the video) but not, generally, where otherwise offensive terms are simply being used as a proxy for the opposing team.

What I mean by a proportionate response is that, for example, Manchester United should draw up a banned list of the four or five truly horrific chants that I hear regularly on the Stretford End and commit their stewards to intervene, issue bans, hand names to the police and, if necessary, force games to be played behind closed doors. In short, whatever it takes to drive this out of our game.

It is ridiculous to think that the problem of intimidation, harassment and fear that some fans, players and managers are forced to endure can be wished away by asking fans to sanitise their game to the point of having no swearing ( Many fans disagree and lots of fans will unthinkingly sing along to anything if they are in a big enough crowd. We need to focus on what is achievable but it will take more than a videos to do it.