Under the present circumstances, when the possibilities of social life are somewhat limited, the circus division of our regime of bread and circuses is even more important than usual.
Therefore, when a televised soccer match on Dec. 8—between the champions of France, Paris Saint Germain (owned by the Qataris), and the champions of Turkey, Basaksehir of Istanbul—was halted because the players walked off the field, the event was bound to create a stir.
Why did the players walk off? It was because of the alleged racism of one of the four Romanian officials supervising the match. That official, Sebastian Coltescu, protested to the referee (the most senior of the four) that Pierre Achille Webo, an assistant trainer for the Besaksehir team, was misbehaving on the bench beside the field.
The referee asked him who it was, and he replied, “It’s the black here. Go and identify him. The black bloke.”
Thus roused the wrath of Webo, of Cameroonian origin, who demanded, “Why you said ‘negro’?” The situation deteriorated from there. That the word for black in Romanian is negru was no excuse, apparently, or that it was a quick way of identifying the alleged miscreant, as “the fat one” or “the tall one” might have been.
The precise nature of the incident will probably never be fully explained. There are allegations that Coltescu had been repeatedly called “gypsy,” which may or may not be true.
But the action of the players was almost universally praised. There was strikingly little inquiry into the alleged behavior that Coltescu complained about, as if it were irrelevant to the whole situation.
Elevation of Feeling
Perhaps the most important and revealing single comment on the affair so far was that of Romanian Minister of Sports (an Orwellian post, in my opinion) Ionut-Marian Stroe, who said, according to reports, “I firmly condemn all speech that can be interpreted as racist, xenophobic, or discriminatory.”
This, in fact, is a very sinister little sentence, illustrative of a very modern pathology, that of the elevation of feeling over all other considerations.
Leaving aside the question of whether racist speech should be prohibited, the minister’s words make the question of whether an utterance is racist entirely subjective: It’s racist if someone interprets it as such.
There’s no necessity to take into account the intentions of the utterer or, more importantly, whether a reasonable person would interpret his words as racist. All that is necessary is for someone, somewhere, to take offense.
This does nothing to calm tempers; on the contrary, it inflames them and encourages people to become over-sensitive, especially in a cultural context in which expressing moral outrage is often taken as a sign of virtue and deep and laudable feeling.
Mere descriptive terms become presumed insults and all allegations of wrongdoing in this respect become true by definition, against which there can be no possible defense.
As an appalling official report in England once put it, “a racist incident is an incident that someone perceives as racist.” The fact that the perceiver is a raving lunatic would be of no account, nor the fact that he was a mere bystander and the persons principally involved in the incident were of a different opinion.
This subjectivization, to coin an ugly term, isn’t confined to racism, of course. In one hospital known to me, the bullying of staff was defined by management as the perception by a member of staff that he or she was being bullied.
There was no requirement, then, for an objective correlative: evidence, for example, of bullying behavior that a person of reasonably firm disposition would consider bullying.
And since feelings are private and the person who has them is the sole world expert upon their existence, it hands tremendous power to potential complainants—and often a financial motive, too, insofar as a complaint of bullying often ends with monetary compensation. In fact, in an age of consumer indebtedness, compensation is often the only hope, other than a lottery ticket, of possessing a lump sum.
But this subjectivization of complaint also places tremendous power in the hands of the bureaucratic adjudicators of complaints.
They are like the parents or teachers of children who complain to them that little Bill or little Jane pinched them or took their apple. “No, I didn’t!” “Yes, you did!” “No, I didn’t!” “Yes, you did!” becomes the form of all argument. All power to the adjudicators!
Needless to say, only some groups can avail themselves of this subjectivization. If someone were to say “All doctors are murderous parasites!” I should not, as a doctor, be able to claim any particular harm done to me. (The Nobel Prize-winning writer George Bernard Shaw claimed precisely this, but no one would take any notice of me if I called for him and his works to be “canceled,” in the new sense of the term—that is to say, written out of history—and unmentionable, in the manner of Stalin, simply on the grounds that they upset me.)
I would have had more sympathy with the players if they had walked off the field in response to the obviously racist chants of crowds that were common in the days when black football players were few.
Even such a response would be morally debatable, because it would be to deprive the majority of the crowd, which didn’t chant, of the spectacle that they had paid to watch, though it might well have had the desirable effect of making such chanting hated by the majority and therefore less likely to be indulged in by the minority. In fact, it has declined very considerably, more or less spontaneously, though it persists in Eastern Europe.
As it is, we now live in a world in which the utterance of a single word in a foreign language that few understand and which might or might not have been used with a derogatory intonation, but which was not in itself necessarily derogatory, and was used in circumstances that are as yet unclear, is enough to set off an outpouring of canting self-righteousness, and possibly to ruin a man’s career.
Needless to say, this is not a world in which freedom will flourish.
Theodore Dalrymple is a retired doctor. He is contributing editor of the City Journal of New York and the author of 30 books, including “Life at the Bottom.” His latest book is “Embargo and Other Stories.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.