We seem increasingly worried as a society about whether people take offence rather than whether offence was intended.
I understand something of the history of the ‘y-word’. I understand that it can cause offence, and I understand that the offence caused is genuine. People are free to be offended. I’m offended that I feel pressured into writing the “y-word – something must be done! But people should be free to offend unless their behaviour is illegal.
When Tottenham fans chant “y** army” the intent is not to offend members of the Jewish community. Obviously some are offended, some are not. I don’t actively want to offend people but nor do I want “not offending people” to be the main driver for how I should act. Let’s have a debate about whether Spurs fans should moderate their behaviour by all means. Let’s agree to disagree if we must. But please leave talk of arrest, prosecution and of banning words out of it.
Instead, enforce the existing legislation so that racists using offensive language are prosecuted. Leave people who clearly do not intend to cause offence from having to moderate their own behaviour to stay within the law, or a football stadium.
As for the suggestion that Spurs fans promote a ‘call and response’ culture in which others feel “legitimised” to hurl the “y-word” back with added vitriol – nothing legitimises racism. Do we ban behaviours now because disgusting racists might respond in a disgustingly racist way? By all means people are free to not like that Spurs fans chant the y-word, but we do not shoulder the responsibility for other people. If rival fans use the word “y**” “back” at Spurs fans without realising that it can be offensive, then educate them. I really don’t believe many (say) Chelsea or (say) West Ham fans who use the word aggressively in reference to Spurs fans don’t know something of what it means, or that they don’t get a kick for that very reason. They’ll be the same fans making the hissing noises and singing their jolly songs about Hitler and Auschwitz on the tube or in the pub. They know.
Then there is the argument that “we wouldn’t accept this if e.g. a mostly white crowd in Brixton used the n-word”. It seems hard to understand how such behaviour could be acceptable but that’s precisely because it doesn’t happen – because there is no context. Context is all here. It means we can look at things in a different light and it would be reprehensible if we didn’t do that. People might not like that non-Jewish people are using the y-word but they are, and so the theoretical set of fans in Brixton is not a fair comparison. The history, the context – they matter. If the hypothetical fans in Brixton had been singing their songs for decades – it might seem less hard to get our head around.
People should not be free to act in a bone-headed way as soon as they get through the turnstile. Threatening and racist behaviour is unacceptable anywhere. I have challenged it on a number of occasions – at Birmingham City I was made to feel by a steward that I was a trouble-maker for complaining about the hissing from the home stand. I challenged fellow Spurs fans on a number of occasions for the use of homophobic, racist chanting against Sol Campbell (I would have preferred a consultation and more action from the club on that issue as opposed to this one, incidentally).
But on those occasions language was used to intimidate and offend either a group or an individual. Spurs fans using the y-word is clearly intended as a joyful, positive thing and whilst people are free to find it a less than joyful thing, or to wish that they would stop using it or to think they don’t have the ‘moral right’ to use it – they shouldn’t have the right to ban it.
Let’s use the law against the thugs and racists. Let’s enforce bans on thuggish or racist behaviour. I’m not a thug or racist. Leave me alone.