The not-so-strange affair of the Space Monkeys

The furore over some utterly inoffensive remarks by England manager Roy Hodgson shows the power of speech etiquette today.

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.

What Ouseley really needed was that arch defender of the racially offended, Peter Herbert, to chime in. Last year, Herbert, chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, reported his racially offended feelings to the police following media coverage of a game between Manchester United and Chelsea, during which referee Mark Clattenburg was alleged to have called Chelsea’s John Mikel Obi a ‘monkey’ (he didn’t). Herbert’s complaint was still enough to have the Metropolitan Police open an investigation.

In the Space Monkey case, the obvious fact that Hodgson neither intended nor actually committed any act of racism would matter not to the likes of Herbert. A true zealot of the mindset that brought us the Macpherson Report in the late 1990s, Herbert views a racist incident as any incident perceived to be racist by the victim or, failing that, perceived to be racist by him!

The Space Monkey story may well go down as ridiculous to most commentators and it may well have left anti-racism campaigners slightly embarrassed. But the fact that it can happen at all is testament to the suffocating atmosphere of linguistic correctness, which continues to seep into all aspects of social life.

Adrian Hart is a film-maker and researcher, and author of the Manifesto Club report, The Myth of Racist Kids.

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