What makes something offensive?
This question comes up as soccer authorities mull the appropriate punishment for a recent goal celebration by West Bromwich Albion’s Nicolas Anelka. After scoring against West Ham a few weeks ago the French striker performed the “quenelle,” a gesture invented by a comedian and named after a fish dumpling. Doesn’t sound that offensive. But the comedian in question, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, has been convicted of anti-Semitism in France and banned from performing.
No one really knows what the gesture means, it seems. It is often described as “a cross between an inverted Nazi salute and a bras d’honeur, or French sign for ‘Up yours.’” It’s not clearly one thing or the other, which is why the English Football Association first appointed a special investigator to decide just how offensive the quenelle is and then after nearly a month issued a 34-page report that claims the arm signal is “abusive and/or indecent and/or insulting and/or improper.” For his part, Anelka, like NBA point guard Tony Parker and many others who have performed the gesture — it’s all over the Twittersphere— claims ignorance of the anti-Semitic connotations. He sees it simply as “anti-establishment.” But what establishment is he talking about?
Offensive speech, speech that causes hurt or anger, is hard to define. Just as comedy is. The quenelle is clearly offensive, and supposedly funny. Most legal scholars, even those who favor policing hate speech, don’t give much credence to the idea of “offensiveness.” As Stanley Fish puts it, “Offense can be given by almost any speech act — in particular circumstances one might offend by saying ‘hello.’” Thus, reporting on the same news, Al Jazeera’s headline, “Anelka defends ‘Anti-Semitic’ Gesture,” and the Jewish Chronicle’s headline, “Anelka Agrees not to Perform ‘Nazi Salute’ Again,” can differ so much, but both put the key offensive bit in quotes.
Even if legislators don’t care about “offense,” sports leagues, our blessed arbiters of social decorum, do. Arsenal striker Jack Wilshere recently received a two-game ban for flipping the bird to a hostile Manchester City Crowd. That’s offensive, the F.A. claimed. Wilshere’s teammate Theo Walcott, though, received no punishment when he mimed the scoreline with his fingers to angry Tottenham Hotspur fans while being hauled off on a stretcher after suffering a torn ACL. Taunting the fans is just cheeky, not offensive, the FA claimed (“He’s a bit smarter than me, I suppose,” said Wilshere). This was a big game in the bitter, intra-London rivalry, largely dominated by Arsenal over the years, and one could argue that Walcott’s gesture was more offensive, more mean-spirited than Wilshere’s generic middle finger.
In this light Walcott’s gesture moves us closer to hate speech, a category beyond “offense.” It is hate speech that Dieudonné has been accused of spreading, and Anelka may be too. Jeremy Waldron’s book The Harm in Hate Speech, which makes a compelling argument for the kinds of censorship laws that France has (If you don’t want to read the book, read Fish’s quick summary), distinguishes this hate speech from everyday insults and middle fingers. It is public and visible speech (like televised goal celebrations), and it debases a particularly vulnerable group of people. Hate speech makes these people feel insecure about their membership in a civil society, the way hooligans make opposing fans unsafe in their fandom, or a “2-0” symbol might make vulnerable Spurs fans feel fundamentally inadequate as humans. The idea is that in a democracy, we should feel equally assured of our citizenship despite any differences in ethnic or economic history or any self-selected system of beliefs or sporting affiliations. Spurs fans are people too. Hate speech, then, is not speech that forwards a set of values, but aims to dehumanize and humiliate others, or as Waldron puts it, undermines their dignity. As a community, we have a compelling interest, he says, to police such speech and maintain dignity for all.
I’m kidding, of course, about Theo Walcott’s 2-0 celebration, but is the quenelle hate speech? One must consider context and history, a history of oppression and anti-Semitism and genocide. The claim by Anelka and others that the quenelle is “anti-establishment” would be more convincing if the gesture seemed to say, “Fuck the government” or “Die, Investment Bankers,” or even, “Burn in Hell, Man United.” (Well, maybe not this year’s Man United.) But Anelka’s gesture, and his explanation of it, is decidedly—perhaps purposefully—vague. Is he against all “establishment” and the very idea of governance? Was the gesture meant to be a protest against the EU or does it refer more locally to France? Is it too much to expect concise, insightful political commentary from our athletes’ celebrations?
Most U.S. courts and liberal scholars don’t care much for laws against hate speech. We believe that speech is fundamentally sacrosanct. You practically have to breathe fire and have that same fire burn down a school in order to get busted for opening your mouth in this country. One of the main and most convincing arguments against such regulations is that hate speech is pretty hard to define, even if we use Waldron’s “dignity” argument. Justice John Paul Stevens, in a review of Waldron’s book, compares it to Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark about obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” But do we know it when we see dignity eroding? So much mediates the meaning of speech: intention vs. reception, context, power, irony. Can we tell when speech crosses the line, when it can be agreed upon by most people that it intimidates and incites hatred? How do we measure feelings?
Another argument against such regulations is that censorship laws have a pretty horrendous history. They have, Michael McConnell notes in an argument against Waldron, usually been used by the powerful to protect their own interests and put down the Pussy Riot. Governments aren’t the only culprits of capricious censorship. Sports leagues don’t have a great track record either. Just look at the NFL, where the corporate honchos encourage players to give each other brain damage, and then fine them for dancing. Dancing is undignified, they say. But such censorship may be even more fraught in soccer, where goal celebrations, either because of the internationalism of the sport or some other reason, tend to veer into politics.
Others argue that it’s easy for liberal elites to defend intimidating speech. We aren’t the ones intimidated by it. We can make judgments about the meaning and effects of speech. We must. For my part, I can’t really assess Anelka’s gesture. Even if I watched many of Dieudonné’s performances and was fluent in French, I still don’t think I’d “get it.” But maybe that’s part of the problem here.
I have watched this interview on Iranian TV. (Here is a truncated transcript. Caveat: The transcript is the work of The Middle East Media Research Institute, a group that has been accused of a pro-Israeli bias). Dieudonné certainly doesn’t seem funny here (The New Yorker claims he isn’t funny period.) I notice, though, that he is careful to differentiate between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Zionism, for him, is part of a colonial racist, nationalist global regime that oppresses. He wants to fight all of those things, he says, which sounds good to me. But then Zionism begins to lose its meaning and become an overarching monster. Dieudonné calls American capitalism a Zionist system in which “a small number of people get to ruin a country and eliminate jobs of many people.” Again this is a noble thing to fight against.
But what initially seems noble about Dieudonné’s cause begins to seem darker, more hateful the more he talks about Zionism. This linguistic slipperiness goes over a cliff about 8 minutes into the video when he says, “Zionism is dividing humanity. It is trying to rule by making us fight one another. They have organized all the wars and organized all the disorders on this planet. They were involved in the slave trade. We should know that 90% of the ships that relocated the Africans to the West Indies belonged to Jews, and the majority of slave traders were Jews. Obviously, Jews today are not responsible for what happened, but this is a reality, and this, for example, is something we are not allowed to talk about.”
Here Zionists turn into “they” and “they” are Jews. And “they” are an evil cabal stirring up trouble. Now we’re no longer in the realm of anti-colonialism or anti-capitalism, but standard anti-Semitic fear-mongering, complete with conspiracy theory and historical revisionism. None of this is true.
One wonders then if the quenelle is a mode of mobilizing general discontent, mystifying it, and then magically refocusing it on the Jewish menace. If so, the real danger might not be in what it means but in its ambiguity, its mobility as a sign. That’s the kind of thing that is hard to police, but it only makes it more important to bring the darkest meanings to the surface so that we can separate discontent from evil. Hopefully the F.A.‘s 34-page report will not result in further ambiguity and political posturing, but in a real enlightenment. Somehow, though, I don’t think it will.