Up the Yid Army!
The campaign to cleanse Britain’s football terraces of the Y-word is a patronising assault on Tottenham Hotspur fans’ pride and identity.
My mate Helen is a diehard Tottenham Hotspur fan. ‘I get a tremendous burst of power and energy when I hear the guys around me slowly shouting “Yid”’, she tells me. I know exactly what she means. The chant can go on for 30 to 40 seconds, and for that brief period of time everyone has a sense of emotional solidarity with their self-consciously chosen identity.
When Spurs fans shout ‘we are the Yid army’, you can feel their palpable sense of pride. For many of them, positively embracing the word Yid is an act of self-determination. To turn what for some is a term of abuse into a form of self-affirmation is a quite significant accomplishment. To flaunt the phrase ‘we are the Yids’ in the face of the rest of the world is to deprive the word of its power to degrade and insult.
In an era when policing language has become the bread and butter of professional moralisers, it was only a matter of time before someone decided that the football terraces should be cleansed of word Yid. The celebrity David Baddiel and his brother Ivor have taken offence at what they delicately refer to as ‘the Y-word’. And since they have privileged access to the cultural establishment and the media, they have succeeded in getting sections of the Football Association to support their campaign to erase the Y-word from modern football.
They have produced a 90-second patronising and infantilising video which lectures fans about the meaning of ‘Yid’ and advises them to watch their language. Baddiel disingenuously claims that he does not intend to ‘censor football fans’. He says that his objective is ‘simply to raise awareness that the Y-word is – and has been for many, many years – a race-hate word’. But of course, the censoring of football fans is precisely the goal of Baddiel’s video and broader campaign.
Today’s obsession with policing language is bad enough. However, what makes this initiative particularly inane is that its real target is not racist fans, but fans who use the term Yid as a badge of honour. The aim of this moral crusade is to undermine the self-constructed identity of those football fans who choose to define themselves as Yids. This is not really about challenging anti-Semitism – it is about undermining the right of football fans to appropriate the word Yid and to use it in a manner deemed inappropriate by the Baddiel brothers. They clearly assume that Spurs fans who say ‘Yid’ are their moral inferiors and thus they must be lectured about the etymological roots of that word.
It is reported that the producers of the campaign video want a ‘zero-tolerance approach’ towards Spurs fans using the Y-word as a form of self-expression. But if there is any word that expresses intolerance and moral confusion today, it is the Z-word in ‘zero tolerance’. Zero-tolerance policies are warrants for intolerance. The casual way in which zero-tolerance policies are enforced today – normally against people’s use of certain, apparently problematic words – shows how degraded the ideal of tolerance has become. No society that genuinely embraced the virtue of tolerance could present its polar opposite – zero tolerance – as something decent and responsible.
Zero-tolerance policies masquerade as important attempts to protect individuals and minorities from violence and hatred. However, as the social commentator Bruce Schneier reminds us, ‘so-called zero-tolerance policies are actually zero-discretion policies’. That is, such policies are applied arbitrarily and they punish without any regard for circumstance or context. They assume that ordinary human beings cannot be trusted to grasp the nuances of speech and cannot be allowed the freedom to distinguish between the different meanings attached to different words. Zero tolerance towards the chanting of the word Yid in the terraces is motivated by a conviction that football fans lack the moral capacity to use language in a non-destructive manner.
There are several troubling things about the campaign against the word Yid. Firstly, who made the Baddiel brothers into gods? How do some people gain the authority to decide what words can be used at a football match? David Baddiel says his initiative was inspired by a particularly nasty incident of anti-Semitic abuse. Sadly, such incidents are far from rare and people will of course empathise with the predicament Baddiel found himself in. He also has every right to feel uncomfortable when he hears the word Yid being chanted on the terraces. But he does not have the right to spare the rest of us the responsibility of deciding for ourselves how we should interpret such chants. Nor does he possess the moral authority to police the way Spurs fans construct their identity.
We should be very careful about policing language. The meaning of words is not always self-evident; it frequently depends on context. One of my American friends was horrified to discover that Spurs fans chanted the word Yid – at least until he heard the chanting for himself. Yes, Yid is usually used as a term of abuse. However, it is also used as a positive term of self-definition. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the 1874 edition of Hotten’s Slang Dictionary noted that the word Yid was used by Jewish people ‘very frequently’. In my own lifetime, I have heard the Y-word used positively, neutrally and, yes, as a term of venomous hatred. But then, I have also heard the word Jew used in a variety of ways. In any case, anti-Semites do not need to use a specific word to communicate their prejudices. As an undergraduate at a North American University in the late 1960s, I knew that the claim that some individual was ‘really New York’ was a snidey way of saying that he was ‘too Jewish’. Fortunately, no one has yet come up with the idea of zero tolerance towards the words ‘New York’.
Whatever this campaign might achieve, it will do nothing to diminish anti Semitism. The policing of language inhibits people from expressing their sentiments, including their prejudices. Some believe this is a brilliant result since it protects minorities from being offended. However, when prejudice is forced under the surface, it has a tendency to fester and to intensify resentment. Unlike public manifestations of racism, which can be fought and challenged, the silencing of prejudice makes it difficult to find a positive resolution to the problem. That is why, despite the enactment of numerous laws against Holocaust denial and racist speech in many EU countries, anti-Semitism is actually stronger today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.
Zero-tolerance policies diminish genuine tolerance – which is precisely the virtue we need in order to combat racist ideas.