Thursday, September 13, 2012

Oh you English, how quaint you be

Even though I've been in the States for almost twenty years, I keep up with English news and sports all the time. I prefer the sports, frankly, and the news seems a little less... biased? Amateurish?

(And yes, I'm totally ignoring the phone hacking scandal and the newspaper with the boobs on page three every day.)

So imagine my surprise when I turn to the trusty BBC for my daily dose of news and sports and find something that, over here, might appear on the pages of The Onion.

There are two parts to this story, but the headline itself made me go, "Huh?"

John Terry, Anton Ferdinand: QPR & Chelsea discuss handshake

(QPR = Queens Park Rangers, and for those who don't know, QPR and Chelsea are soccer teams.)

No, I didn't alter anything, that's what it says. To discuss a handshake - not one between Arafat and Netanyahu (partly because one of them's dead) or Hillary Clinton and Sheikh Mohammed Blow-'Em-Up, but between two guys who make a living kicking a ball.

And the first three paragraphs heighten the silly stakes:

Senior officials from Chelsea and QPR are in talks to defuse the growing tension surrounding Saturday's west London derby at Loftus Road.

QPR defender Anton Ferdinand will meet with manager Mark Hughes on Thursday having indicated he will not shake John Terry's hand before the match.

In July, the Chelsea captain was acquitted of racially abusing Ferdinand in last season's corresponding fixture.

So let me explain, if it's not obvious, why this is so silly:

1. A man was charged with a crime for calling another man names. A crime.

2. High-level talks are being conducted, and reported on in the media, over an up-coming handshake. Or lack of one.

Both events are, in my humble opinion, ridiculous. And to the credit of my adopted nation, neither would happen here.

First of all, this wonderful, beautiful, magical thing called the First Amendment protects my right to call people names. I might get a biff in the hooter but I'm not going to face the prospect of men in dark suits hauling me off at gunpoint.

This wonderful amendment, which apparently the English should take a look at, also means that we don't get a situation where some politician (or group of them) decides that one batch of rude names is okay, while the other batch constitutes a crime. Let's face it, where do you draw the line? And what's the harm in a rude name or two? After all, the person yelling the racist/age-ist/sexist epithet is the one who comes out looking like a loser, anyway.

As for the handshake thing, good grief. I tried to ponder the situation in terms of US sports, imagining if a member of one team P.O.ed a member of the opposing team. They next time they might on the field of battle, this would happen:

Football (or, as I call it, throwball): the insulter would get insulted right back, probably by a man who weighs more than a bus, and while he wasn't looking he'd get a helmet in the kidneys.

Baseball (or, as I call it, throwball): the pitcher would chuck the ball at the insulter's head, who would then charge the mound, and in nine seconds both teams would be slugging it out while an assistant manager stands next to the melee, spitting ta-baccy and side-footing dirt onto everyone.

Basketball (or, as I call it, throwball): the insulter would be complimented for his imaginative use of language, but in a back-handed way which would lead to louder compliments, eventual chest bumping, and lots of shoving. Meanwhile, two fat blokes from the crowd would be egging the players on while the referees buzz around at waist-level trying to calm things down.

There is simply no way in the world anyone would even suggest inter-team talks to hash out a resolution to the Mysterious Case of the Missing Handshake.

I mean, really, what's next? Slapping each other with gloves? That, my friends, is called boxing and now that I think about it, perhaps it's the perfect solution: one ring, two men, four gloves. Now quit your whining and get ready to rumble!

Seriously, does anyone else think this is ludicrous?

Also, you should get some sports that don't involve throwing the ball.


  1. As a British person, I'm very glad that in the UK we have struck a more nuanced balance between freedom of speech and other rights. It strikes me as a strange ordering of priorities to refuse to protect people from the daily reality of degrading abuse out of fairly-abstract concerns about protecting freedom of speech.

    There is no real controversy here about placing limits on freedom of expression in order to prohibit people from racially abusing others. Since all laws are about 'drawing the line' between different rights, refusing to protect people because drawing that line is difficult seems a bit cowardly. Several hundred years in, we generally trust our system of government (politicians and the courts) to strike this balance carefully.

    Generally the approach taken here works well. The law allows (and people practice) robust criticism and discussion, but prohibits racial (and other types of) verbal abuse. When John Terry was tried, the only criticism of the police and prosecutors was that it was a waste of money, because the maximum possible fine upon conviction was much less than his weekly wages.

  2. Matt, thanks so much for commenting. I suppose I'm firmly in the "words can't hurt me" camp, and not so much in the camp where I trust politicians to decide which ones are worthy of criminal penalty. I would also argue that it's not "cowardly" to protect ALL speech, but quite the opposite. It takes some resolve and strong principles to protect speech that is unpopular or that many find offensive.

    As I say in the blog, I think people who abuse their right of free speech by using racial or other epithets are the ones who come out looking bad. I'd also take issue with the idea that the politicians have found a good balance, if it's agreed that the punishment for Terry, if he'd been found guilty, would have had no effect. I'd take that result, in fact, and argue that punishing people for their words will never have an effect to change their underlying prejudices, whereas free and robust (if occasionally offensive) debate WILL achieve that.

  3. What is "a biff in the hooter?" I think I know what a hooter is, but I didn't know you had one, and I thought they generally came in pairs . . .

  4. we do. it's called soccer:)

  5. Ruben: in this context, it's otherwise known as a conk, schnozzle, or "nose." And a biff would be a punch. On the same page now? Got your mind away from the other kind of 'hooter'?!

    alex: Ah yes. You do play that nowadays, don't you? :)


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