Man’s inalienable right to banter

In the wake of the Mackay / Moody scandal, we must defend the liberty to talk bollocks.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Free Speech

Okay, hard hat and flak jacket on, here goes. It’s time someone had the guts to stand up and defend the right of Malky Mackay and Iain Moody to engage in puerile banter. As the Fourth Estate seems to be inhabited by shrill, intolerant, language cops, that unenviable task falls to me.

The shitstorm over the exchange of inappropriate text messages has cost Iain Moody his job and quite possibly destroyed Malky Mackay’s managerial career. Serves them right, you might say. There’s no place in the game for men in positions of authority who think it’s clever to make jokes about Jews and south-east Asians – not to mention gay snakes and bouncing on ‘falsies’. I’ve no wish to defend the sentiments expressed in those text messages. They were clearly puerile and offensive. But here’s the thing: they were made in private. They weren’t careless remarks overheard on the training ground or in the dressing room. They were private text messages. And if you can lose your job – or even your career – for making inappropriate remarks in private, then our society really is going to hell in a handcart.

A free, liberal-minded press, you’d have thought, would respond robustly to what Mick Hume described on spiked as the ‘legalised hacking’ of Iain Moody’s mobile phone. Yet the media have been shamefully silent on this chilling violation of privacy, preferring instead to embark on yet another bout of football-bashing. Journalists were more agitated by what the Guardian’s David Conn described as a ‘dark-age set of attitudes’ within football. The Telegraph’s Jason Burt wrote that the dossier submitted by Cardiff City to the Football Association lifted the lid on ‘a distasteful sub-culture of bigotry and insularity’. Naturally, the professional offence-seekers at Kick It Out also waded in. ‘These revelations are further confirmation of how football is tainted with racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism… [a] culture which continues to exist throughout the game and in society as a whole’, said Kick it Out chairman Lord Ouseley.

When the League Managers’ Association (LMA) issued a fairly mealy-mouthed defence of one of its members – Mackay – it, too, came under fire. Why? Because in trying to apologise on Mackay’s behalf, it suggested that Mackay had simply been ‘letting off steam to a friend during some friendly text-message banter’. It’s the phrase ‘banter’ that has particularly incurred the ire of bien pensant inquisitors. ‘Fucking disgraceful’, tweeted TalkSport presenter Stan Collymore. This was ‘institutional acceptance of the “banter” of casual racism’, he said.

The word ‘banter’ has become a dirty word to anti-racists. It is seen as an attempt to trivialise bigoted small talk, which, naturally, anti-racists want rooted out. As David Conn put it: ‘That enjoyable word, denoting good times among mates, is a new catch-all excuse for nastiness, containing within it the implication that those campaigning against prejudice lack a sense of humour.’ So cowed was the LMA by the febrile reaction it provoked that, within 24 hours, it had apologised for its apology. ‘It is beyond argument that any comments that are discriminatory, even used in private, are totally unacceptable’, it said in a revised statement. Never mind institutional racism, this is just institutional cowardice on the part of a representative body whose stated aim is to ‘protect the rights and privileges of its members’. With unions like this, who needs the thought police?

Where does this leave Malky Mackay’s once-promising managerial career? It’s clearly hanging from a thread. Former FA chairman Lord Triesman has called for the Scot to be banned from football for a year. Jason Burt thinks ‘he can never manage a football club again’. It’s easy to overlook the salient fact that Mackay hasn’t committed any crime. Or as QPR manager Harry Redknapp colourfully put it: ‘He’s not murdered anyone, he’s not a rapist or a paedophile.’ Mackay has apologised for his texts and, as far as I’m concerned, that should be the end of the matter. Whatever Mackay or Moody think about south-east Asians, Jewish people or homosexuals is nobody else’s business as long as they keep their personal opinions to themselves. Even bigots should have the right to air their prejudices in the privacy of their own homes.

Don’t agree? Then what I’d say to you is this: let he who has never made an inappropriate comment in private cast the first stone. Who hasn’t shared a tasteless joke? Who hasn’t bitched about their boss down the pub on a Friday night? Who hasn’t said anything that might be construed as obscene, blasphemous or insulting? We’ve all said stuff that is stupid, boorish, regrettable, offensive or childish in private. We say things we don’t really mean or haven’t fully thought through. And, quite rightly, we don’t expect to be punished or ostracised for the inappropriate things we say when we’re at home, having a drink with friends or exchanging private text messages. If we allow the boundary between public and private to become blurred, we really ought to give up the pretence that we’re living in a free society.

It’s not just the right to say what you bloody well like in private that we should stick up for. I’d go further and defend that much-maligned concept of ‘banter’. That’s right, it is our inalienable right to engage in banter. As Brendan O’Neill has observed on spiked, the language cops are increasingly turning their attentions from ‘hate speech to “mate speech”’. To understand why it’s important to protect banter, you need to have an appreciation of context. A football match is a good example. Fans trade all manner of tasteless and offensive insults during a match. However, most of what they yell they don’t really mean. For the most part, those on the receiving end also understand the irony. They understand the rules of engagement and, by and large, they aren’t grievously hurt by the taunts. Trading insults is all part of the theatrical ritual of fandom. Most supporters wouldn’t dream of behaving so boorishly at work, in a supermarket or sitting on a train. They know that different rules apply in those areas and they adjust their conduct accordingly. Context is all important.

Banter in a sports dressing room is another area in which the normal conventions are relaxed. Any man who has played competitive football will know that the dressing room is a very blokey, unforgiving environment. If you can’t take a bit of teasing or don’t like lewd jokes, it’s probably not the ideal environment for you. But that doesn’t mean that men necessarily behave in the same way when they step outside the dressing room. What’s said in the dressing room stays in the dressing room – that’s the unwritten code. We get that different conventions apply in other social arenas. We understand that different standards of behaviour are expected at work or in a restaurant. The dressing room, however, is an informal, private realm in which we are free to say what we want.

Why is it important to make banter among friends a no-go zone for the language cops? Because if we subject this informal, private realm to the rules and strictures of public life, then we do irreparable harm to the social fabric itself. We’ll always be wary and cautious; always minding our Ps and Qs. We need a space in which we can be playful and free, in which we can let down our guard, express ourselves, let off steam and, frankly, talk utter bollocks. It’s in these unregulated realms, free from the constraints of officialdom, that we are able to talk in confidence, develop bonds and forge trusting relationships. This issue is bigger than Malky Mackay, Iain Moody or even terrace culture. If we don’t protect banter, we allow our already receding sphere of freedom to shrink even further. And that would be a tragedy for everyone.

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

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Topics Free Speech


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