sport

Give offence-seeking the red card

Despite appearances, football isn't suffering from an epidemic of anti-Semitism - just an exaggerated mood of touchiness.

Anti-Semitism in football. It’s on the rise, isn’t it? You’d be forgiven for believing so in the week that West Brom striker Nicolas Anelka was summoned to an FA disciplinary tribunal for an allegedly anti-Semitic gesture and three Spurs fans were charged by the police for using the word ‘yid’. In fact, the opposite is true. Football isn’t a hotbed of anti-Semitism - nor is British society as a whole. What is rife is the kind of thin-skinned, sanctimonious offence-seeking that we’ve witnessed in the past week.

Until recently, the word ‘quenelle’ was familiar in Britain only to foodies, who took it to mean an oval-shaped fish cutlet. But then Nicolas Anelka performed a mock salute – also called a quenelle - to celebrate scoring a goal and, overnight, we’ve become a nation of armchair semiologists, feverishly deconstructing the significance of the gesture. As Tim Black explained recently on spiked, the meaning of the quenelle, a gesture popularised by controversial black French comedian Dieudonné, is fiercely contested. For many disaffected young French people, it’s an anti-establishment ‘up yours’ gesture. Dieudonné claims it is anti-Zionist rather than anti-Semitic. Anelka himself insisted that ‘the meaning of quenelle is anti-system.’

However, French sports minister Valérie Fourneyron described Anelka’s gesture as ‘disgusting’ and a ‘shocking provocation’. French anti-racists maintain that the quenelle is an inverted Nazi salute which has been adopted by anti-Semites. The Football Association took three weeks to investigate the incident – a sure sign that the quenelle’s meaning is unclear – but has now charged the striker with making a racially aggravated offensive gesture. Property website Zoopla, whose CEO is Jewish, has also severed its shirt-sponsorship deal with West Brom after the club refused to omit Anelka from the squad.

We could, I guess, employ a crack team of linguists and cultural studies lecturers to decode the quenelle. We could wire Anelka up to a lie detector to test him for traces of anti-Semitism. But whatever we do, I suspect the verdict would be inconclusive. There is no consensus over the meaning of the controversial salute. Moreover, the debate over the quenelle’s meaning misses the bigger question: Why should words or gestures which cause offence be prohibited?

Think about it. Many liberals quite rightly supported the successful campaign to amend section 5 of the Public Order Act, which outlawed ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’. Comedian Rowan Atkinson, who spearheaded the campaign, argued that we should defend the right to insult each other. As he put it: ‘The clear problem of the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy, can be interpreted as insult.’ Quite right. But where are the same free-speech crusaders when it comes to Anelka’s quenelle? Their silence is deafening.

Personally, I’d defend the right to free speech no matter how vile or offensive the sentiments expressed. No exceptions; no conditions attached. And yes, that means I’d defend the right of racists or anti-Semites to spout their moronic opinions. But here’s the thing. Football is not facing a tsunami of racism; the days of mass monkey grunts or bananas hurled at black players are gone. What we are seeing rather is the increasing criminalisation of innocent remarks and clumsy phrases. Whether it’s Rio Ferdinand’s ‘choc ice’ tweet, Roy Hodgson’s ‘space monkey’ joke, Anelka’s quenelle or Spurs fans’ ‘Yid Army’ chant, words or gestures which aren’t motivated by racial hatred are now falling foul of the intolerant ‘you can’t say that’ culture. The context in which words are used and the question of intent are now considered irrelevant.

This is no accident. It’s the logic of the definition of racism in Lord Macpherson’s 1999 report into the killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. Macpherson defined a racial incident as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. This subjective definition of racism is an open invitation to parasitic, third-party victim-mongers to take offence on behalf of black or Jewish people. And, in the easily offended times in which we live, offence-seeking has become rife. Roy Hodgson’s innocent use of the phrase ‘feed the monkey’ – by which he meant pass the ball to Andros Townsend – is a perfect case in point. Hodgson didn’t mean to offend and the player said he wasn’t offended. But others took offence on Townsend’s behalf and turned an innocent half-time team talk into a full-blown race row.

The recent spare of football-related race rows illustrates the extent to which contemporary anti-racism has become an intolerant purge against inappropriate words, gestures and symbols. It’s become an Etiquette Inquisition. That’s why I think it’s important to defend Anelka. It’s not because I support Dieudonné or condone anti-Semitism. It’s because I believe that, in a free society, the way to confront bigoted ideas is through political argument, not censorship and gagging.

Anelka now faces a ban of at least five matches if he is found guilty. Isn’t it about time that his fellow professionals showed a bit of solidarity? Only Everton’s on-loan striker Romelu Lukaku has publicly defended Anelka saying: ‘We don’t have to make such a big deal about it.’ What if all footballers took part in a synchronised quenelle on a Saturday afternoon? What would the FA do? They couldn’t possibly ban everyone. I reckon it’s worth a go. For the sake of freedom, footballers should collectively stick a quenelle up the Football Association’s arse.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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