Sunday 16 December 2018

Mary Kenny: When it comes to race these days, we are all walking on eggshells

Judging by the amount of lacerating criticism he has had over the past few days, you would think FIFA president Sepp Blatter was an ardent follower of Heinrich Himmler.

Normally emollient and unopinionated characters such as David Beckham have called for his resignation; he has been strongly condemned by Rio Ferdinand, John Barnes and even David Cameron. The Twittersphere is awash with indignant comments about this 75-year-old Swiss administrator, who has had four terms as president of the football federation.

And what did Mr Blatter actually say? He said that if there should be a racist incident on the football field, it could all be healed and satisfied by an end-of-match handshake between the offender and the offended.

Shock! Horror! Doesn't he know that racism is the worst possible outrage in our time (along with homophobia)? Doesn't he understand that racist abuse is against the law in most civilised countries today? So call the lawyers and summon the constabulary and have him thrown out on his ear!

He has now apologised for making such heedless remarks, but the future doesn't look too promising and if he is wise he will contemplate retiring to some picturesque Alpine chalet.

And yet what those off-the-cuff remarks about offender and offended shaking hands really revealed was that Mr Blatter's values are archaic: they come, basically, from a different era when it was considered quite 'sporting' for chaps who had thrown insults, or even traded punches, to shake hands man-to-man at the end of sporting hostilities.

The playground spat, when Mr Blatter was growing up in the 1940s, was seldom taken particularly seriously. And that was everywhere. Kids got called names all the time: fat kids were called 'fatties', or 'podge', thin kids were called 'skinnymelinks', and kids wearing spectacles were called 'four-eyes'. Kids were tagged with names for their religion ('Proddy-woddies', 'Teagues'), and their ethnicities: Spaniards were 'spicks', Italians were 'Wops', Irish were 'Micks' and the French were 'Frogs'.

The French regularly referred to the Brits as 'Rosbifs', because their complexions were said to resemble roast beef -- pink with plenty of surrounding fat. There was a range of names for Germans -- from the more harmless 'Jerry' to the more disparaging 'Hun'. In France, the Germans were 'Les Boches'.

The Brits themselves famously insulted everyone with the dictum: 'Wogs begin at Calais'. Even within the United Kingdom, allegedly jokey insulting language was common. Of the Welsh, the English chanted: 'Taffy was a Welshman/Taffy was a thief', and Jock the Scot didn't get off much lighter.

None of this was particularly kind or nice, and at the extreme end of racism it was odious. The anti-Semitism which stained the 20th century often began with casual abuse, and indeed, it was the awareness of what had occurred during the Third Reich that made subsequent generations work to correct such attitudes.

However, the need to develop a more sensitive and respectful attitude to people of different racial or ethnic origin has arguably now gone to such neurotic and hysterical extremes that, like the 'Reds under the bed', racism is now perceived everywhere and in every nuance of discourse.

In Britain, 20,000 schoolchildren between the ages of three and 11 have been officially reprimanded (and their names logged by the local authorities) for alleged 'racist' remarks in the playground. To stigmatise a child for using apparently racist language is surely disproportionately punitive and inflating childish ignorance to social vice.

When it comes to race, not only must everyone now walk on egg shells, they must be aware the law is now ever-vigilant, ready to report an incident and turn it into a federal case.

This is where Mr Blatter is from another era, when human conduct was guided by such phrases as 'Least said, soonest mended' or 'Don't make a mountain out of a molehill'; and Christians were enjoined to abide by St Paul's advice: 'Suffer in silence'.

Sportsmen were expected to show 'manliness' on the field, and whatever hostilities were exchanged, display 'magnanimity in victory, grace in defeat'.

In an episode of the saccharine but stylish American TV retro-drama 'Pan Am' on Saturday night, a co-pilot punches his captain in the face after an altercation. If that happened today it would be a straight case of assault, and the full weight of the law invoked. But the series is set in 1963, and the spat is resolved by some honest man-to-man talk and a conciliatory drink at the airport bar.

To be sure, Mr Blatter has other baggage: he has been accused of financial mismanagement, has incurred the displeasure of the Football Association of Ireland after the Thierry Henry handball controversy in 2010, and has made sexist remarks about women's football -- or remarks that are nowadays considered sexist but which, in his formative years, could have seemed appreciative towards the ladies (he said female footballers should wear tighter shorts and low-cut shirts "to create a more female aesthetic".)

All this must count against him as pressure mounts for his resignation. At 75, it would be fitting to bow out. But surely his real offence is archaicism -- invoking the values of a world now passed away -- rather than any viciously intended racist attitude?

Irish Independent

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