Media on Racism: Part 2 – Framing
Jan 23, 2012 – Top Gear’s “lazy
Africans Mexicans” routine was broadcast to millions. It made minor news, with no repercussions. Luis Suarez’s dialogue with Patrice Evra was heard by nobody and unrecorded, but it led to a media frenzy of blaming ‘n’ shaming – with many journalists mistaking their own carelessness for a moral high horse.
The different outcomes can be explained partly by the N-word and partly by a confused application of “zero tolerance” framing, both of which featured in the Suarez coverage, but not in the Top Gear case.
Racism framing & the N-word
- Racial stereotyping/abuse
- Ironic slang
- Comedic mockery of stereotyping/abuse
- “Quoted” use in reportage, novel, film, etc
BBC and Ofcom initially dismissed the Top Gear incident as category #3 – but a later BBC investigation effectively placed it in category #1 (assuming that “Mexicans” connotes ethnicity – see part 1). That’s supposed to be serious – but you wouldn’t have thought so from the media coverage, or the lack of penalties for Top Gear’s producers.
The Suarez case was different, as it involved the N-word. In English (current usage), both “nigger” and “negro” imply a racist frame. “Negro” in Spanish is a different story, particularly in Latin American usage. The linguistic experts brought in by the Football Association (FA) stated that:
“The term can also be used as a friendly form of address to someone seen as somewhat brown-skinned or even just black-haired. It may be used affectionately between man and wife, or girlfriend/boyfriend, it may be used as a nickname in everyday speech, it may be used to identify in neutral and descriptive fashion someone of dark skin” (para 172 – my emphasis)
And the FA’s experts went further, pointing out that Suarez was innocent of racial abusiveness if his account of his use of “negro” was accurate:
“…the use of ‘negro’ as described here by Mr Suarez would not be offensive. Indeed, it is possible that the term was intended as an attempt at conciliation and/or to establish rapport”. (Para 190)
Of course, this assumes that Suarez’s account (eg that he said “negro” only once) was true. Evra claimed he used the word multiple times, and in a way that the FA’s language experts agreed would be considered offensive. The initial reaction to Suarez’s defence, from some commentators, was that whatever meanings the word had in Suarez’s country, there was “no excuse” for it “in the United Kingdom“…
“Ignorance no excuse”
The Spanish word sounds different – and has different meanings – than the English version. Is it widely known that friendly use of the Spanish word may be mistaken for its racially-offensive use? Is it widely acknowledged that the friendly usage should therefore be avoided? The “ignorance is no excuse” objection doesn’t quite capture the logic – since the speaker might be aware that “negro” is usually offensive in English-language use. A conversation in Spanish is different. A whole cultural/linguistic can of worms is opened up (see “Whose Ignorance?” section below).
The FA’s panel effectively had two choices for “finding” Suarez guilty – they could accept Suarez’s claim of inoffensiveness, but punish him anyway (based on the “ignorance is no excuse” reasoning), or they could accept Evra’s version – ie direct racial insult. By choosing the latter, they effectively freed themselves from entanglement in cultural/linguistic issues – but they also gave themselves a seemingly impossible burden of proof, given the lack of evidence corroborating Evra’s account.
I say seemingly impossible – we shouldn’t forget the media’s role in making extraordinary things possible. (Let’s see… A war with Iraq based on zero evidence of WMDs, a single uncorroborated source and a dodgy dossier?)
And then we come to Suárez, whose own statement screamed his innocence and flew in the face of everything the linguistic experts told the FA panel when they analysed what the player said to Evra at Anfield, the context in which it was said and how his comments would be interpreted in his homeland and beyond. The experts’ conclusion, lest it be forgotten, was that Suárez’s remarks would be “considered racially offensive in Uruguay and other regions in of Latin America”. (Guardian, 3/1/12)
This is wholly misleading. Stuart James presumably didn’t read the section of the report which describes how the FA’s linguistic experts agreed with Suarez about non-racial use of the Spanish word “negro” (eg paras 190, 194). The line from the report that’s quoted by Stuart James (taken from the summary, para 453) refers not to “Suarez’s remarks”, but only to Evra’s uncorroborated account of them. The report is quite clear about this. The FA’s experts concluded that:
‘If Mr Suarez used the word “negro” as described by Mr Suarez, this would not be interpreted as either offensive or offensive in racial terms in Uruguay and Spanish-speaking America more generally’
(para 194 – my emphasis)
The question that Stuart James and his media colleagues should perhaps be asking is: why was this important part of the report not cited in a single newspaper report or commentary?
Meanwhile, here’s James Lawton commenting in the Independent:
You cannot do what Suarez did – as proved by video evidence and confirmed by linguistic expertise, including a knowledge of the nuances of references to race in the player’s native Uruguay – and get away with some implausible argument that you were innocent of the charges against you. Not when you have been found, irrefutably, to have said, without the interruption of any other word, “black, black, black…” (Independent, 2/1/12)
This is disturbingly inaccurate and misleading. Three falsehoods in one paragraph (the “confirmed by linguistic expertise”, “proved by video evidence” and “found, irrefutably […] black, black, black” claims). Lawton not only makes the same mistake as Stuart James regarding the “linguistic expertise”, he also seems unaware that the crucial Evra/Suarez dialogue is not on any video recording. His use of the phrase “found, irrefutably” seems bizarre in the extreme, referring as it does to one man’s unsupported, uncorroborated claim (para 378).
Sadly, this was typical of most UK media coverage. The important point about the FA’s language experts agreeing with Suarez over N-word usage (thereby reinforcing the stance taken by Liverpool FC) was lost beneath the misleading statements and moralising.
Framing wars & PR
In the days following the FA’s Dec 20th verdict (minus reasons, which came later), various news frames jostled for dominance. John Barnes was widely quoted, labelling the case a “witch hunt“. Ian Wright (in the Sun) criticised the FA: “I think the punishment – on all public evidence – is ridiculously harsh…”. (Some reports had already alluded to a previous FA hearing which decided that Patrice Evra’s evidence was “exaggerated and unreliable”). And, of course, there was Liverpool FC’s statement (critical of the FA verdict), which most media described as “strongly worded“, “forceful“, etc.
The coverage was mixed. But this appeared to end after the Guardian pushed hard with a framing of Liverpool’s “shameful” handling of the issue – triggered (it appears) by a seemingly trivial piece of non-news (T-shirts – more on this below). As an outsider, with no affiliations to Liverpool, fan-wise or otherwise, I observed the “respectable” media’s outpouring of vitriol (over nothing very much) with puzzlement. It was almost as if there were some kind of PR/lobbying going on behind the scenes.
In a match warm-up on 21 December, Liverpool players briefly wore T-shirts printed with a picture of Suarez. This reinforced the message of Liverpool’s earlier statement – and said nothing that wasn’t already articulated in the statement.
The Guardian constructed a “news” story around the T-shirts. In an article headed with the word “Backlash”, it cited a total of three people who objected to the T-shirts. It was a three-person backlash! The Guardian then ran another piece (headed with the word “shameful”) which cited the same three people (footballers Paul McGrath, Jason Roberts and Olivier Bernard). Bernard, now an anti-racism campaigner, offered his reasoning:
“I really didn’t think it was fine to wear the T-shirts. I can understand the club’s side of it, but in society we can’t accept racism and give support to a player who has used racist words” (Guardian, 22/12/11)
Which, of course, makes a pretzel out of logic. The T-shirts (and statement) were to indicate precisely that Liverpool doesn’t accept that Suarez used “racist” words.
The Guardian also ran a tabloid-style “poll” titled: “Were Liverpool’s Luis Suárez T-shirts distasteful?”. Other media ran with the T-shirt story, soon creating a perception that there was “widespread” condemnation of Liverpool’s “handling” of the issue.
Too Much Doubt
I’m reminded of another T-shirt gesture to protest a man’s innocence. It’s a different type of case, but the underlying logic (of protest) is exactly the same. Amnesty International published a statement about the flawed evidence against a man (Troy Davis) convicted of murder. There was a campaign (‘Too Much Doubt’) to raise awareness of problems with the evidence and the legal process.
The Guardian supported the campaign (T-shirts and all). Nobody, to my knowledge, argued that, in so doing, they were supporting the crime (rather than the man and his claims of innocence). The logic of protesting wasn’t drowned out with cries of “shameful” or “beyond the pale” – at least not in the UK’s “liberal” media.
“Zero tolerance” on racism has been cited as justification for harsh criticism of Liverpool’s “handling” of the Suarez case. For example, the Guardian’s “Backlash” article stated that:
‘The T-shirts provoked criticism that the gesture conflicted with football’s anti-racism campaign Kick It Out, confusing its zero tolerance message’ (Guardian, 22/12/11)
The “zero tolerance” message has certainly been confused. It’s supposed to be zero tolerance of racism itself, not of the right to dispute somebody’s verdict. “Zero Tolerance” can be a dangerous thing when it’s used to stifle dissent and nullify claims of innocence – it diverges from civilised notions of justice, if one isn’t careful. Instead of being alert to such dangers, media commentators (as usual) seemed in thrall to “official” “authority” (in this case the FA and its “independent” 3-man panel). Unquestioning churnalism resulted.
A cultural/linguistic can of worms is sometimes opened when a word is mistaken for a racial insult. How does one apply “zero tolerance” in these – often ambiguous – circumstances? There are several cases (mainly in USA) of the word “niggardly” being interpreted as a racial slur. In one incident, an aide to the mayor of Washington DC resigned after a complaint that he’d used the word “niggardly” when speaking with two African American employees.
Although this sounds like one of those absurd “political correctness” stories which the Daily Mail likes to make up, it’s true – and it has interesting implications. “Niggard” means ”miser” – it’s unrelated to the racial N-word. But it can be used as a racist code-word. (In March 2010, a billboard appeared in California that referred to President Obama as “niggardly”).
Steven Pinker, the linguist and best-selling author, comments:
‘… it is impossible for anyone to hear “niggardly” without thinking, if only for a moment, of the ethnic slur. […] Worse, the context is of little help in squelching the wrong meaning. […] After the various associates of a word light up in the mental dictionary, the rest of the brain can squelch the unintended ones, thanks to the activity that psycholinguists call “post-lexical-access processing” and that other people call “common sense”.’ (New York Times, 2/2/1999)
The ambiguity of “niggardly” among English speakers is different in kind to that of “negro” among Spanish speakers. But ambiguity is ambiguity, and the same question applies in both cases: if offence is taken mistakenly, does responsibility lie with the speaker or the offended party? In the case of the Mayor’s aide who resigned (he was later reinstated), most US media commentary suggested that the offended person’s ignorance was to blame (ie ignorance of the dictionary meaning of “niggardly”). But the reverse seems to be the case with the Suarez incident, even though Patrice Evra initiated the conversation in Spanish.
I’ll now attempt to answer a question posed in part 1 (“Is national stereotyping necessarily less serious than racial stereotyping?”). When people are perceived as mere units of a group stereotype, dehumanising horrors can result (as history shows) – whether the stereotyping is racial or national/ethnic. So, I can think of no good reason why the Top Gear case should be seen as less serious than racial use of the N-word in a football match. But the point was probably best made (as Steve Coogan suggested) by imagining the Top Gear presenters doing a routine about “lazy Africans” rather than “lazy Mexicans”.
‘If you are arguing for racial equality with a man who
keeps using the word “nigger”, you will eventually discover
that you are making no headway and that some barrier
prevents clear communication’ — Robert Anton Wilson