Jonathan Wilson has a very thoughtful post up which helps untangle some of the maniacal media threads that have emerged as a result of the John Terry trial, in which he was found not guilty of racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand.
Wilson painstakingly explains the basis of the rule of law, that the burden of proof is on the accuser to prove the defender guilty of crimes charged “beyond a reasonable doubt.” To this day, many believe “not guilty” verdicts somehow assert inviolable empirical fact, and the reaction to the verdict in some quarters reflects this belief. As with the workings of parliamentary democracy, it’s alarming how little citizens seem to understand the judicial and governmental system of which they are an involuntary participants.
That said, Wilson’s final paragraph deserves a response. It reads as follows:
Most of all, football needs a whole reconsideration of race. It has been sickening the extent to which people have used Twitter and other media to abuse Evra and Ferdinand. For them, hopefully, police action will follow. It is also troubling how many seem to think Terry should have been convicted as a demonstration of how tough Britain and English football is on racism. Racism is deplorable, but you can only condemn those who are proven guilty of it.
It’s interesting that Wilson is writing for, in part, and American audience in Sports Illustrated, who might find the notion that ‘police action’ should be the appropriate response to comments on a social media site uncomfortable (or not, something for which we can thank the Bush administration).
Even so, within the above paragraph lies a troubling contradiction. The reason many believe Terry should have been convicted as a “demonstration of how tough Britain…is on racism” is because this was precisely the motive behind the legislation of hate speech in the first place. Far easier for governments to punish racial abuse outright via the courts than focus on racism’s root causes, some of which may uncomfortably clash in some cases with government policy (attitude toward refugees, equitable social programs, etc.).
This wouldn’t mean much if the law was actually an effective means to combat domestic racism. It isn’t, and the reason, as was once famously said, is the law is an ass. It can’t take into consideration nuance, personal history, character, or, except in consideration of mens rea, the underlying intent beyond that involving the specific action. The law gave the police no choice but to charge Terry as soon as it appeared he may have used racist language toward Anton Ferdinand. It was also entirely ineffective in addressing the possibility that Terry may have thought it was in some way fair game to make reference to race in a stream of verbal abuse. We will never know, because Terry denied he racially abused Ferdinand.
Part of the problem is that despite the sanitized apologies found in some quarters of the press, racial abuse is a symptom of a racist attitude. Hence the absurdity of fellow Chelsea defender Ashley Cole’s testimony in court that “Terry isn’t a racist” (a moment that ironically reflected the indirectly racist idea that, as a black man, Cole should know more than others); racism is not an ever-present, absolute characteristic, like hair or indeed skin colour. It is not always immediately evident, and is often context dependent. Hence the possibility that someone who believes non-whites should be able to vote may also believe that Polish workers are lazy. Or that someone can be perfectly polite to black people in his personal life and think nothing of throwing bananas at them on a football pitch.
This is what makes the fight against racism difficult, and why, unlike in other areas of criminal justice, the component of state punishment is more detrimental than helpful in that fight. This is because racism is an idea, and ideas live in the world of speech. Minds are changed not when that speech is stifled, particularly by state intervention, but they’re changed with argument, and, if necessary in the worst cases, by social ostracism. It is the value of these discussions which makes the right of free speech so important in a democracy. And that discussion was cut off in this instance and replaced with a trial that was professionally executed, if entirely ineffective.
In the end, there will always be hardcore racists among us, those who will not listen to reason. In countries where free speech is respected, they can only be fought by public opinion and social progress, far more polished weapons than a court of law can provide.
But I’m willing to believe John Terry is not one of them; however, he may have (although it hasn’t been proven in a court of law) believed it is acceptable to resort to racial abuse on a football pitch. It might have a been a spur-of-the-moment attempt to go for the jugular in a heated exchange, but we will never know, because Terry’s admission would have seen him punished by the law, and so he took his chances with a trial.
Sadly, that also meant the moment for a high profile athlete to admit wrong-doing for using racist language on football pitch; for Terry to apologize and to sit down in reconciliation with Ferdinand, his colleague in the Premier League; and to provoke an open and honest discussion about why racial abuse is wrong in any context, has come and gone. Instead we’ve seen a manager resign, a player not selected by England over under dubious circumstances and further alienated from a once friendly former team-mate, we’re faced with another FA hearing with subsequent denials, and we’ve made zero progress in bringing racial abuse in football to light.