January 29, 2008

Racial abuse not cricket (and vice versa)

The Harbhajan Singh story is surely a free-speech dispute that holds almost no satisfaction for anybody. American readers may not have heard about it, because it concerns (a) India, (b) Australia, and (c) cricket. For Americans who are not international news junkies, the quantity of news encountered about any of these three topics in a week will typically amount to zero. Harbhajan Singh is a spin bowler (the analog of a pitcher in baseball) who plays on the Indian national team. Andrew Symonds is a member of the Australian cricket team, a batsman from Queensland. Symonds is black (not because of Australian Aboriginal heritage, incidentally, but because one of his birth parents was West Indian; he was adopted by English parents who moved to Australia when he was a baby). During an argument on the pitch during a test match (a major international game), Harbhajan is alleged to have called Symonds a "big monkey".

When the Australian captain complained, charges were immediately brought under international cricketing regulations, since they forbid use of language which "offends, insults, humiliates, intimidates, threatens, disparages or vilifies another person on the basis of that person's race, religion, gender, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin." Harbhajan was found guilty, and barred from playing for three games. India immediately threatened to pull its team out of the series and go home. Harbhajan appealed, and a New Zealand judge, John Hansen, was appointed by the International Cricket Council as an appeals commissioner to hear the appeal in Adelaide's Federal court. He announced his decision yesterday: the charge is downgraded to one of using abusive language, and Harbhajan has been fined 50 per cent of his match fee, but can continue playing. No racism, no continuing dispute, and cricket can go on. Everything is peachy. Unless of course you care about any of the underlying issues.

  • First Amendment radicals will be disturbed that the charge should never have been brought. People should be free to speak their minds in their own ways. On a sports field tempers will run high, and those who have racist tendencies will reveal themselves by using racist language (if we assume that is what "monkey" is), and they will forfeit the respect of those of us who despise racism.

  • Those who favor regulations and laws to control racist speech will find it a scandal that Harbhajan basically escaped the original charge. Symonds is said to have suffered racial abuse before, at three cricket grounds in India in October 2007 (see Wikipedia); this is becoming a pattern.

  • India fans will insist that there is no evidence that Harbhajan did anything at all; otherwise such evidence would have been presented. The microphone that the Nine Network had placed near the batsman's area did not pick up the insult (though what it did pick up was pretty damning: see the transcript here, and note that Harbhajan does not attempt to deny what he's being accused of). So it is an outrage, they will say, that he was fined a large sum of money for an angry word that no one can prove he uttered.

  • Australia fans will be disgusted that what really appears to have been operative here was (surprise, surprise) money. India is now the biggest financial powerhouse in the cricket world: there is simply more money to be made by televising cricket for the billion-strong population of India than for anything else on earth. The Australian market is trivial by comparison. For India to pack up its gear and go home would have been a financial disaster for world cricket. So what the business side of the cricket industry really needed was for Harbhajan to be cleared of any alleged simian conversational references so that business could continue, never mind what he had done. And that is what has just occurred. Play on.

A nasty judgment call, I think, for anyone with radical free-speech inclinations who also cares about sport. On the one hand, in a free society you should be free to call an opponent a monkey in a disputewithout ending up in the High Court, if you want to sink that low rhetorically. (According to this cricket blog the India captain Chetan Chauhan agrees that Harbhajan said "monkey", but that in India that's not an insult. I don't know about that; but when Ravana called Nandi a monkey in Indian mythology, Ravana was then cursed for it.) But on the other hand, sport is increasingly being disrupted by racism: British soccer fans, in particular, used to be notorious for appalling racist abuse of black players. Soccer followers tell me that in England the problems (crowds of young men booing and gibbering and shouting abuse and jump up and down scratching their armpits when an African player on the other side takes the field) have largely abated in the last few years; but on the continent of Europe, in Spain particularly, there are still reports of racist fan behavior; and buses in Edinburgh still carry posters inside warning people that they can be placed on a police list of people banned from attending any soccer game for periods of many years if they engage in racist abuse.

Free speech for all? Or safe and sane working conditions for hard-working African sportsmen? There is a basic clash here between freedom of expression and reasonable standards of public behavior. It certainly is not a simple open-and-shut issue.

One little further linguistic point: as I wrote about India's new financial muscle above, naturally the metaphor of the 800-pound gorilla in the old joke ("Where does he sleep? Anywhere he wants!") occurred to me as a vivid way to talk about the undeniable force India has become; but then I suddenly saw that in the context a gorilla metaphor might not be the right figure of speech to choose...

[Update: Vinay P. Jain has told me an extremely interesting fact. It turns out that there is some doubt about what language the insult was delivered in. It is thought that Harbhajan (who is from Delhi, and thus speaks Hindi) may have uttered the widespread north Indian abusive phrase तेरी माँ की (terii mãã kii), literally "your mother 's" — an almost exact equivalent of the familiar American you mama!. (Your mother's what? It is left unspecified lest the insult become too extreme.) The combination of the noun mãã "mother" (in which the tildes over the long vowel [aa] denotes nasalization) and the genitive postposition kii sounds extremely similar to the English word monkey. So Harbhajan may have just been muttering the equivalent of "yo mama!" to Symonds, mainly for the benefit of his (Hindi-speaking) team-mates. In which case the judge was right, this was abuse, but not racist abuse. On the other hand, some discussion in the press has cast doubt on the Hindi story; for one thing, there is video of cricket fans actually calling Symonds a monkey in India a few months ago in terms that left no doubt about it. Then again, one of my Australian correspondents points out that there has long been concern about the abusive language used on the pitch by the Australian team. Michael Jeffery, the Governor-General of Australia (i.e., the Queen's representative in the country, of which she is still the official head of state) has commented on his perception of graceless behavior of Australian cricketers. (And there are certainly some tales to tell; you can read one or two here.) The Australians are not blameless. Things are always more complicated than one at first thinks, aren't they?]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 29, 2008 03:34 AM