Not content with restricting what we can say in public – whether we’re football fans referring to ourselves as ‘Yids’ or Christian preachers having a pop at homosexuality – the new speech police now want to control what we can say in private. Slowly, tentatively, today’s self-styled warriors against hateful or offensive speech are turning their attentions from the public square to the private sphere, desiring nothing less than the punishment of men and women for saying apparently bad things in their own homes or in utterly cut-off chats with mates. Having outlawed certain forms of public speech, they’re now hell-bent on criminalising certain forms of private chatter, and even thought itself.
Over the past month, there have been a handful of scary cases on both sides of the Atlantic that have exposed our betters’ latent urge to violate the once-sacred space of private life and tell us what we can think and say there. In Britain, the chief executive of the Premier League, Richard Scudamore, was hauled over the coals for things he said in private conversations with, as he describes them, ‘friends of many years’. In the course of completely private email chats, Scudamore used fruity or sexist language (depending on your point of view) to describe women. His friends and he referred to someone having sex with ‘skinny big-titted broads’. They used Carry On-style double entendres in a chat about golf, with one saying he had spent ‘all day fending Edna off my graphite shaft’. (The subject of that somewhat infantile banter, one Peta Bistany, says she wasn’t offended by the emails.) They also said ‘female irrationality increases exponentially depending on how many members join your family’.
His emails were leaked to the Sunday Mirror by his PA, Rani Abraham, who has since become a feminist icon and tabloid star for claiming she felt ‘humiliated and belittled’ by Scudamore’s email banter. It is testament to how far today’s poisonous culture of betrayal-sanctioning, Wikileaks-style leaking has gone when a woman who read and then helped to publish a man’s private thoughts is treated as the hero of the story. Truly do we live in an Orwellian society when snitching is treated as the highest public duty, and public exposure of someone for having the ‘wrong’ private thoughts is applauded by media and politicians. When the inhabitants of foreign authoritarian regimes take relish in publicly denouncing someone who has problematic private attitudes, we frown; when someone does it over here, we cheer.
As soon as Scudamore’s emails were made public, there were demands for him to be thrown out of his job on the basis that a man who says sexist things in private is not fit for public life. A writer for the Guardian said Scudamore had brought the game of football ‘into disrepute’. Another columnist said referring to women as ‘big-titted broads’ is unacceptable ‘even when there isn’t [anyone] cc’d in’ (my italics). PM David Cameron hinted that Scudamore should lose his job. In the event, Scudamore stayed in his position, but only after he was made the subject of widespread media and political handwringing and issued a grovelling apology for… well, for how he speaks to his friends; for the sort of jokes he uses in private; for what he thinks and does behind closed doors. In other words, for having a private existence.
In essence, Scudamore found himself on trial for the contents of his mind, for the whispers of his private life, in a kangaroo court set up by hacks outraged by sexism and politicians keen to score some points with feminists. We need to appreciate how historically illiberal it is to subject a man to public ridicule and threats of the sack for things he said in a private conversation. If Scudamore had stood in the middle of a football pitch, grabbed a mic, and referred to all the women attending the game as ‘big-titted’ and ‘irrational’, there would be a very strong case for the Premier League getting shot of him. But he only used those words and phrases in private, and if we are not free to speak our minds behind closed doors, to make foul jokes or simply to be unguarded among friends, then we are not free to do anything. A properly civilised society is built on the idea that there is a distinction between our private lives, where we can be absolutely honest, open and experimental in thought and speech, and our public lives, where we present a better-behaved, more orderly version of ourselves. The Scudamore scandal suggests we’re moving towards a more tyrannical society where the line between our private and public existences is being completely blurred, making it easier for both arenas to be policed, on the basis that, as one Scudamore-hating observer put it, it is impossible to ‘wipe [prejudiced] views from your mind every time you step into your office’. So they will have to be wiped for us, by the new determiners of what it is acceptable to think and say at home, in the pub, and in phone or email chatter.