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Was Suarez right not to shake Evra’s hand?

Manchester United took another important step towards the Premier League title, their 2-1 win again putting pressure on Manchester City as we enter ‘squeaky bum time’ at the summit of the Premier League. Instead of talking about this, however, the mainstream sports media has decided to focus on Luis Suarez refusing to shake the hand of Patrice Evra. Sir Alex Ferguson’s definition of the incident as a “disgrace” pretty much sums up the general view of Suarez’s ‘faux pas’; however, in my opinion, the incident simply reflects a bizarre tension at the core of British society which undermines the idea of ‘democracy’ almost as much as the actions of the financial institutions which prop it up.

It is natural that Sir Alex Ferguson should come out all guns blazing. He has the interests of his player at heart, and by drumming up ‘outrage’ at the ‘offence’ caused, he is building sympathy for Evra and, by virtue of association, his club. Likewise, Kenny Dalglish’s defence of Suarez is entirely understandable when you think of it in terms of club rivalry; by milking the concept of Suarez as the innocent victim, Dalglish appeals to the general consensus that United’s powerhouse status in British football allows them to get away with much more than they should, both on and off the field.

The attitudes of Ferguson and Dalglish form a part of what we can accept as a natural tribalism inherent in football. Football clubs work like any social group; the club’s stature can, by definition, only grow in opposition to ‘the other’, every win is experienced as a form of communal ecstacy, and the bonds between individual members are strengthened by the very idea of community – a victory offers transcendence through collective bliss, whilst defeat serves only to strengthen the bonds between individual members through shared hostility towards outsiders. Football works by appealing to the irrational, idealistic side of human nature – and we readily accept this as a pleasant, constructive expression of humanity. Football, is, after all, a game – and, as its greatest-ever player once said, a beautiful one.

What is disturbing is that the hysteria surrounding the Luis Suarez ‘case’ is supported by a different sort of tribalism from that which we can happily accept as being part of the game, ie, the positions of United and Liverpool fans which will, naturally, differ. The fact is that Suarez vs Evra was, from the outset, a national issue, and one upon which the majority of the media and the general public seemed to agree.

So what happened? Essentially, there was a dispute between Suarez and Evra over something nobody  cares about anymore and, in the ensuing fracas, Suarez allegedly referred to Evra as a ‘negrito’ several times. Evra, incidentally, referred to Suarez’s Latin American heritage in what can only be described as an aggressive manner (just replace “dirty South American” with “dirty black man” if you’re not sure how unpleasant Evra’s terminology was), but this has been, for reasons closely linked to the problem I’m about to discuss, totally ignored.

Suarez was found guilty of racial ‘abuse’ and suspended for an unimaginably long period of time, a clear example of the tough stance the FA are prepared to take – a stance so tough and uncompromising that they found themselves forced to re-convene twice before a decision was made.

Suarez’s defence, at the time, came from certain ‘liberal’ sections of the British press who defended that the Uruguayan didn’t know he was being a big fat racist because, well, he’s not from this country, you see? Amongst all the fuss about the abuse Patrice Evra ‘suffered’, someone found out that the word ‘negrito’ is not particularly offensive in Uruguay (or anywhere in Latin America, or Southern Europe) because it does not have the connotations it does here. In simple terms, British people might find the word offensive a) because we have a word for black people – ‘black’ – which denotes skin colour, whilst ‘negro’ is a word specifically taken from Iberian languages and appropriated as an offensive term by white slave owners 200 years ago, and b) because it’s a diminutive. However, in Uruguay (or anywhere in Latin America, or Southern Europe), ‘negro’ is simply the word meaning ‘black’, and diminutives denote affection, not rudeness.

Noble as the ‘liberal’ counter-argument appeared, it stemmed from what is actually rather an intolerant position. The argument wasn’t that ‘Suarez didn’t say anything racist’; it was that ‘Suarez said something racist, but because he’s unaware of our more advanced social attitude towards the sensitive issue of ‘race’, he isn’t really to blame’. Not that this argument affected the harshness of his sentence – an eight game ban and a fine which amounted to a significant portion of the player’s wages – but the fact is that this argument caught on in the minds of the general public. Rather than being totally ostracised a la, say, Ron Atkinson, Suarez has come to be viewed with a sort of snobbish, post-racist contempt by English football fans because, well, he’s South American. I could pursue the irony mercilessly, but this subtle act of collective, social racism is simply the manifestation of a darker problem with British culture and not worth dwelling on in itself.

Let’s go back to tribalism. I’m going to use simple logic here, with as and bs rather than flowing prose which, whilst a bit boring, gets to the facts and, I hope, will make for a better argument and even – perhaps – a better read:

I have discussed this issue at length with friends, family, even people I don’t know all that well, and I am yet to receive a satisfactory answer as to why, if Suarez was found to have made a racist comment, Evra was not charged with the same offence. The only answer of any kind which I have received (it is also the only one I can think of myself), goes something like this:

“Evra didn’t refer to the colour of Suarez’s skin, just his general cultural background. Suarez insulted Evra on the basis of his skin colour”

My response to this argument has several strands:

a)      As I’ve mentioned above, what Suarez actually said is not offensive in the language he actually used, Spanish. Evra, who has a decent command of Spanish (at least good enough to insult Suarez), quite clearly understands the context of what Suarez said. This is, however, dependent on the ifs and buts of what actually went on, and I am willing to grant my detractors the luxury of pretending that the word ‘Negrito’ will have offended Evra in any language or context. On that basis,

b)      Why is referring to someone by their skin colour more offensive than referring to them by their socio-cultural heritage? Or, to develop the question, why is skin colour elevated to a position in which it is a particularly dangerous taboo, compared with cultural background, or even personal insults?

Let’s use a notorious example first. Zinedine Zidane famously head-butted Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final for reasons which are a little unclear even today. However, the generally accepted view is that Materazzi said some particularly nasty things about Zidane’s mother. Zidane’s reaction was utterly unacceptable, but what if Evra had head-butted Suarez? Would that have been just as unreasonable? To broaden out the question: is there any way in which Zidane, had he managed to control his temper, could have got Materazzi banned, fined and publicly denounced for what he said?

Of course, the issue isn’t so clear-cut as that. Racism has been an endemic problem, historically, in Western societies, one which has quite rightly been combated strongly by interest groups, political parties, governments and individuals for decades. Whilst personal insults have no wider connotations, a racially-motivated slur is a reflection of social prejudice, prejudice which can spread like any idea which can be re-applied across social groups. Racist ideas, if expressed publicly, must be publicly repudiated by any fair and just society.

However, we have to be logical. The reason most of us find racism unacceptable is that it either implies or directly imposes a limitation on the individual rights of human beings based on other human beings’ perception of them through pre-conceived notions of how they ‘ought’ to be. These notions are little more than generalist nonsense. Limiting someone’s freedom because of the colour of their skin is absurd. Yet, doing so on the basis of their social or cultural heritage is exactly the same.

If we accept that the reason racism based on skin colour is offensive and immoral is that it involves imposing restrictions on individuals based on irrational ideas of how they ‘should’ be, then it is no different from discriminating against somebody because of where they are born. If ‘negrito’, or ‘black’, carries the imperialist connotations suggested by the FA’s handling of the Suarez case, then ‘dirty South American’ is loaded with that very same idea of ‘otherness’, only worse – it isn’t even based on a physical trait but, instead, on an implicit suggestion that someone’s entire cultural heritage and background (which includes skin colour but encompasses much, much more) is ‘dirty’. The argument that British society has had particular problems with the integration of black people and that, therefore, the word ‘black’ is particularly sensitive, simply does not hold water: if we agree that the whole reason we find ‘black’ or ‘negro’ so unacceptable when used as an insult is that it’s wrong on a fundamental moral level, then the same applies to any term which belittles an individual based on any form of inherited identity. That includes people from Latin America and, frankly, should include people of any background – East Asians, Eastern Europeans, Germans (try using the British colonial abuse argument here in light of the Dresden bombings, or British industrialists’ contribution towards the causes of WWI), Belgians, anyone.

In short: skin colour (in this case black skin colour) has no rational justification as a social taboo when compared with cultural heritage. If Suarez made a racist comment, so did Evra.

c)       Even if we grant that Evra was offensive in a different way to Suarez, why was Evra not tried for any sort of offence? Why is the FA essentially saying that whilst it’s unacceptable to offend black people, it’s absolutely fine if the insult is directed towards Latin American people?

This is where tribalism rears its ugly head. It is my opinion that British society is every bit as intolerant, xenophobic and poorly educated as the more obviously racist, unenlightened societies which preceded it. We’ve simply shifted the goalposts. Whilst we have decided (correctly), that being ‘white’ is not a necessary condition for being ‘British’, we have incorporated our attempts at creating a tolerant, pluralist, multi-cultural society into a national psyche which has remained intensely suspicious of the ‘other’. Simply put, there is the sincere belief, across much of British society, that our culture is more enlightened than that of, say, other European cultures. The true legacy of the British Empire is precisely the concept of Britain as a civilising force on the world stage; the so-called barbarians successfully integrated into British society as a result of the collapse of Imperial rule (the system which, essentially, kept Indian people in India, Jamaican people in Jamaica and Palestinian people in what was then Palestine, all working furiously at gun-point for the economic benefit of the Imperial ‘master-race’), the concepts of ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’, whilst limited to these isles, now encompasses people of every culture, religion and skin colour previously under the banner of the Empire.

However, many parts of the world were never ruled by the British Empire, at least not for any significant period of time. These include Europe, most of Asia and Latin America. People with Latin American heritage do not make up a significant proportion of the UK population; nor do they have a long and violent history of political emancipation in this country. Speaking different languages, following their own cultural convention and with their own colonial history, Latin American people, along with our fellow Europeans, people from East Asia, etc, are an example of our new ‘other’. They are not ‘British’.

Patrice Evra may be French, but Suarez did not insult his Frenchness; had he done so instead of referring to his skin colour, he will not have been brought before the FA’s disciplinary committee. As a black man, Evra shares a cultural or racial identifier with a significant proportion of the British population, a demographic which our country is deeply proud to have successfully integrated. So proud, that even referring to black people as a demographic in a socio-historical context opens me up, as a white person, to potential accusations of racism.

Not so in Uruguay, where a white man can call a black man a black man without being publicly harangued. Likewise, a black person may refer to a white person’s skin colour and not fear the proverbial noose. British society considers this situation archaic. If a relaxed and open society is considered archaic by a society riddled with fear, awkwardness and irrational inequalities in its judicial system, then one has to question the very idea of progress – particularly if we reduce our justifications for our ‘rightness’ to differences in economic muscle (ie, ‘their society can’t be all that great – look at their GNP compared with ours’).

Tribalism is an appeal to the irrational, the binding together of individuals by various expressions of collective pride, which can only exist in opposition to the ‘other’. Individual members form deep-rooted psychological bonds in this way, to the extent to which rational thought is extinguished. Evra’s populist showmanship today – from looking straight to the camera when Suarez refused to shake his hand, to goading the Uruguayan by jogging past him and whipping up the United faithful into a frenzy of abuse – represented the horrifying point at which the overt tribalism of football can meet the latent tribalism inherent in society at large. For ninety minutes, the two fed off each other, and now the media will feed off it for days.

I, for one, understand why Suarez would prefer to just get on with the game.

Oliver Neto

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