Before I begin this article properly, I want to warn my regular readers that they may find some of the following language offensive. However, I feel this is an important subject and it is unfortunately impossible to discuss it without some reference to potentially offensive language.
Rowan Atkinson delivered an impassioned speech to the Reform Section 5 parliamentary reception, in support of the campaign for free speech, last Tuesday. You can read the full text of the speech here.
It was an excellent speech making a strong case for the repeal of Section 5, which is the right for police and the courts to decide what kind of language and behaviour is deemed offensive to the public. Reading his speech, it is hard to disagree with his logic that:
The clear problem with the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism is easily construed as insult. Ridicule is easily construed as insult. Sarcasm, unfavourable comparison, merely stating an alternative point of view can be interpreted as insult.
The campaign for the repeal of Section 5 is called ‘Feel Free to Insult Me’ and personally, I think it could be on very dodgy ground indeed. Take the recent case in which John Terry insulted Anton Ferdinand on the football pitch. Terry was cleared by a court of law, but was subsequently found guilty by an FA inquiry. He has been banned for four games and fined £220K, though he is to remain captain of Chelesa FC.
An examination of the exchange (as it was reported in court) might serve to highlight some of the difficulty for this well-meaning campaign.
WARNING: Some people may find the following language extremely offensive.
According to the BBC, no less, here’s how the exchange was reported in court:
Mr Ferdinand told the court Mr Terry insulted him with sexual swear words and made a gesture as if to say his breath smelled.
Mr Ferdinand said he asked how Mr Terry could say that, because “you shagged your team-mate’s missus” and he then swore back at the Chelsea player.
This was a reference to Mr Terry’s alleged affair with Wayne Bridge’s ex-girlfriend, Vanessa Perroncel.
The court heard that Mr Ferdinand then jogged down the pitch, while making a fist gesture, intended for Mr Terry, to imply sex.
It also heard that Mr Terry has accepted how, when both players were around the half-way line of the pitch, he used the words “fucking black cunt”. – BBC News
What I find difficult about the whole exchange is that the player in question was apparently not offended by the use of the ‘f’ word or the ‘c’ word. But the one word that made all the difference and caused the offense was the word ‘black’.
The offended player himself apparently used equally offensive language, in my opinion, as you can see from the above. But how ludicrous it is to speculate that Terry did not have a counter claim because Ferdinand had not use the word ‘white’.
Personally, I would not mind someone using the adjective ‘white’ to describe me. I would not find it offensive at all. Being called a “f****** c***!” however, would be extremely offensive in my opinion.
If the campaign to repeal Section 5 wins the day, it will be perfectly acceptable to call someone a “f****** c***!” But not acceptable to call someone a “f****** white c***!”
This is absolutely ludicrous!