Definition, Please

Stop That

There’ve been a lot of international headlines the past couple of days about the British Home Secretary’s having put forward a bill to punish Britons expressing racism online toward soccer players by depriving offenders of the right to attend matches in person for up to ten years.

For example:

British minister tightens grip: Online hatred will cost up to 10 years without stadium visits
Frederik Mahler Bank, DR.dk, Dec 27

Bank writes:

Three years minimum and up to ten years’ quarantine from football stadiums.

That’s what the consequences should be if you express racism towards (soccer) players online. That’s the view of Britain’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel.

She wants to extend the law that currently applies to violence, riots, and racist expressions in connection with the games, so that the racist expressions that flood social media before, during, and after matches will be included.

He provides a little context:

For a long time, English (soccer) has been rife with online insults, especially after England’s defeat in this summer’s European Championship final to Italy, when three national team players were subjected to racist insults on social media after blowing a penalty kick.

That episode, Bank explains, “roused Great Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson to explain this summer that there would be consequences to hurl racists insults at soccer players on social media.”

He notes that after the European Championship final, Johnson said that “if you’re guilty of online racism against (soccer) players, then you will not come to a (soccer) match. Without exceptions and apologies.”

He then informs us that Patel has now put forward a bill to “hit the people behind the keyboards.”

“Racism is unacceptable, and for too long (soccer) has been plagued by shameful prejudices. Those responsible for racist insults online must be punished. The changes to the law, which I am announcing, will ensure that they are quarantined from participating in (soccer) matches,” says Home Secretary Priti Patel according to the British media Sky Sports.

The new law is expected to take shape at the beginning of the new year. The law will apply in England and Wales.

Banks then cites a few sports organizations that are supportive of the proposal, and some numbers on incidents and punishments over the 2020-2021 season as recorded by the British Home Office, and ends the article by noting that “if one breaks one’s (soccer) stadium quarantine, one risks a six-month prison sentence.”

All of this intrigued me for reasons I’ll get to shortly, so I followed the link embedded on “Sky Sports” in that last paragraph I cited from DR. It leads to this article:

(Soccer) banning orders of up to 10 years for online racism or abuse connected to (soccer) under proposed new law
SkySports.com, Dec 26

That article doesn’t do much to flesh out the thin set of facts offered by the Banks article in DR, apart from a little more detail on how these “(Soccer) Banning Orders” currently operate:

They are issued either following a conviction for a (soccer)-related offence or following a complaint by a local police force, British Transport Police or the Crown Prosecution Service.

These agencies can make an application to the court to make an Order in respect of a person who has at any time caused or contributed to (soccer)-related violence or disorder whether in the UK or elsewhere.

Breach of a (Soccer) Banning Order is a criminal offence and is punishable by a maximum sentence of six months in prison, an unlimited fine or both. In addition, a further Order may be imposed.

So the proposed new law would just extend the Banning Orders described above to include persons who have expressed racist insults towards athletes online.

The SkySports article does feature more British government officials sounding off on their disgust with the racism directed at soccer players online and expressing enthusiasm for the proposed law “to stamp out abuse online and make sure tech firms tackle the hate on their sites,” but not much else.

What neither the DR article nor the SkySports article do is define racist insults.

They don’t because they can’t.

It’s one thing to address racist actions. If you are denying people a job, an education, a home, a service, or a product because of the color of their skin, that’s illegal in most western nations. As it should be. The enlightenment values on which western civilization was built demand as much: we must all be equal before the law.

But the minute you get into the business of policing speech, which is merely the outward manifestation of thought, then you are no longer supporting our enlightment values but defiling them. Any society that polices speech is no longer free in any meaningful sense of the word. If you are not free to think and say what you please, then whatever other freedoms you may enjoy are meaningless.

That’s my problem with the theoretical implications of the law.

But there are even more problems with the practical implications.

Let’s imagine for a moment that I’m one of these lovely people that’s so determined to make the world a better, happier, more loving and more brotherly place that I’m willing to stomp all over any principles to have my (better) way.

Let’s posit that I’m not just one of those people, but am also uniquely empowered to make my will into law.

“Racist insults are obviously disgusting and hurtful and wrong,” I say in my role as Supreme and Benevolent Maker of All Laws, “and I therefore decree them illegal and punishable by whipping.”

“Excellent!” you exclaim (because you, too, are a fool in this scenario), “Now just to be clear, because I am no racist, I need to know what the new bounds of discourse will be, just to be sure I don’t even accidentally violate your awesome and really benevolent laws.”

“You may henceforth never express racist insults online,” I say gravely.

“Right,” you say, “but what does that mean exactly?”

“It means,” I say, “that you can’t say racist things to people online.”

“So… I can’t say or write the n-word, or even the bad words that we’re actually allowed to put into writing even though they’re also racist and bad, like spic and dago and camel-jockey and kike and gook, right?”

“Precisely.”

“Except,” you quickly add, “except when using them for an example, like I just did—I mean, I didn’t violate the law just then, did I?”

“Not that time, no,” I assure you.

I’m no monster, after all. I’m reasonable. My laws can make allowances.

“But what if, just, you know, hypothetically… hm, let me put it this way, does the racism have to be explicit? As in, using one of those words?”

“Racism is obvious,” I say with majestic calm. “If your intent isn’t racist, then of course we would not hold you accountable for racism.”

“Okay, so, like, what if I quoted some rap song or something that used the n-word a lot?”

“Are you black?”

“No.”

“Then you must never use the n-word.”

“But, I mean, a direct quotation, if I’m—”

“Did I stutter? You may not use the n-word ever.”

“But black people can.”

“Yes. Because then it’s not a racist insult.”

“I get that, but I’m saying, if I’m quoting Snoop Dogg’s Murder Music, which contains the word nigga, which isn’t even technically the n-word, that’s be okay because it’s like an homage, right? I mean, I’m quoting him because I like him, because his lyrics are based, right? And it was one of the top songs of the year?”

I sigh.

“It’s about intent. If your intent is racist, the words are almost irrelevant.”

“Okay, but I don’t get how you know my intent.”

“Well, if you sent a bunch of gorilla and banana emojis to a black soccer player after he missed a goal, that would obviously suggest racist intent.”

“Why obviously?”

“Well, it’s obviously racist to compare a black man to a gorilla, or to suggest that he is very much like the popular stereotype of a gorilla in that he has an affinity for bananas.”

“But what if I’m so not racist I don’t know any of those stereotypes and am just like, ‘Hey, wow, you are awesome and super strong and bold and powerful like a gorilla, and because gorillas like bananas I’m giving you a whole bunch of awesome bananas in recognition of your awesomeness.”

“That’s idiotic. You’d just be making excuses to cover your racism.”

“What if I had friends come testify that I wasn’t racist and didn’t mean anything bad by it?”

“Your friends would obviously just be covering for you. Any comparison of a black person to a gorilla is offensive.”

“But like I said, you’re assuming it’s meant as a comparison, what if it was meant as a compliment?”

“It wouldn’t be,” I say.

And you are beginning to get on my nerves.

“Well, maybe,” you say, “I mean, it’s a pretty stupid example. But say you were right and I was a racist trying to say racist things without you being able to arrest me, couldn’t I just use other words and emojis and stuff that weren’t as obviously racist?”

“That’s why intent is key, you see: clever racists will always try to find a way around things, so we have to have the ability to go after racist intent rather than just a list of words and phrases and gestures and emojis.”

“But how can you tell the ‘intent’ of someone typing into a computer?”

“Oh, we can tell.”

“How?”

“Because we can. And if your intent is racist, you will be held to account.”

Is that a world anyone in their right mind wants to live in?

A world in which government functionaries are empowered to divine your intent?

Because if you think they won’t be prosecuting on intent, but rather specific words, phrases, gestures, symbols, and emojis, then you’re either short-sighted or devoid of imagination.

Let’s use nice examples instead of ugly ones: let’s say you are wildly in love with someone who loves you back in kind, but you are separated by a great distance and can only communicate online.

Let’s go a step further and say the only way you can even communicate online is via text messages on a service called SuperDuperTech Mobile.

And for some imagined public good or other, SuperDuperTech bans the use of the words love, adore, and cherish. And a whole bunch of syonyms. They ban the use of all heart emojis—even the smiley with heart eyes. They deploy image-processing software to block images containing any known gestures or imagery that communicate love and affection.

Do you think for a minute that you would be unable to communicate your love?

Conversely, can’t you see how easy it would be for some bureaucratic busybody to find what they believe to be hidden messages of love in texts where no love was being expressed?

In other words, if you ban racist words (and symbols), people will find ways around them.

On the other hand, if you ban any language or symbolism that could be interpreted as racist, you’re creating a vague and highly subjective law that will inevitably be misused and abused.

That’s why the American Constitution lays it all out very plainly:

Congress shall pass no law… abridging the freedom speech.

For the kids in the back row: yes, racism is bad. It’s disgusting. And racist actions should be, and generally are, illegal. But you cannot legislate thought. You cannot legislate language. Ever. At all.

Not if you have any interest in freedom.

The magnitude of this stupidity can’t be overstated: if this law does indeed get through parliament, then Boris Johnson and Priti Patel will have taken the Great out of Great Britain—for good.

(Note on language: I used “soccer” in parentheses wherever the original texts said “football” in English or Danish because first of all I’m writing in American English, and second of all because I’m not going to call anything that isn’t played on a gridiron “football” the day after John Madden’s death.)

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