As someone who has worked with classrooms of schoolkids over the years, hearing a child use a word that could be deemed offensive in the adult world is a common experience. Invariably, no one in the room - child or adult - is offended, but the teacher will often feel duty bound to explain that this word is indeed ‘offensive’.
This week’s saga involving England football manager Roy Hodgson and his Space Monkey comment puts me in mind of a teacher I worked with in Brighton, who likened the unruly behaviour of his class with monkeys only to have a grinning mixed race kid tell him he’d committed a ‘racist incident’. (Indeed, according to the school’s policy, he had.) And then there was the teacher in Bristol accused of racism for allowing children to play monkeys in a school production called Enchanted Island. A number of boys had chosen the monkey roles, but the mother of a black child complained.
In Hodgson’s case, no one has claimed to be offended by his half-time pep talk to players, which alluded to an old joke-turned-adage originating at NASA, but a player or coach tweeted Hodgson’s use of ‘monkey’ to the press. Not even Andros Townsend, the player cited in Hodgson’s adage, or his father Troy Townsend, who is involved in the FA’s anti-racism Kick It Out campaign, claimed to be remotely offended.
On hitting the news headlines, the story failed to generate a single declaration of offence. The best anyone could come up with was Piara Powar, executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), who said ‘Hodgson used a very silly term in a diverse team environment’. Welcome to the tongue-twisting world of today’s speech regulation. The lack of any complainant doesn’t matter. It was ‘insensitive’, and so you can’t say that.
When the black comedian Reginald D Hunter offended some audience members at the Professional Footballers Association awards dinner by using the word ‘nigga’, Kick it Out condemned any use of the ‘n-word’, ‘irrespective of context’. Of course the m-word, monkey, isn’t in the same league as the n-word (much to the relief of zookeepers) and so context comes rolling back in. Even the chair of Kick it Out, Lord Herman Ouseley, could only summon up a half-hearted call for an investigation.