(CONTENT NOTE: This post mentions racism and xenophobia, media sexualisation of children, sexist and racist harassment and sexual assault.)
This week, the 2016 Weird Awful News Machine has heavily featured Match of the Day presenter and crisp-advert-man Gary Lineker. Front-page tabloid headlines calling for him to be sacked, politicians attacking and defending him, debate still raging all over the internet… What on earth did Lineker say that was so huge and controversial it created this massive media storm?
Yep. That’s really it. Very non-confrontational, doesn’t blame anyone or anything directly, he even includes the phrase “by some” which you’d think would combat the usual not-all-white-people-not-all-Brexiters-not-me-not-me-not-me brigade.
Here, Lineker was criticising people and publications who responded to the arrival in the UK of fourteen – yes, fourteen – teenage refugees from Calais by scrutinising their photos, declaring them to “not look like children”, and then being all furious and hateful because they must be lying about their age. (Heavy sarcasm incoming…) It can’t be because people grow and age at different rates and adolescence is a particularly awkward time, with some children barely in secondary school being deemed fully grown (usually by those who want to sexualise them – the Daily Mail is particularly familiar with the “all grown up” trope) while some young adults are told they don’t look old enough to have left school. It can’t be because these refugees have seen horrors and devastation that no child should have to go through. Nope, apparently they have to be liars, because we as a society assume all refugees are lying about their situation (which conveniently means not having to feel guilty about the UK’s part in creating and maintaining their situation) and secretly after “our” money, “our” jobs, “our” resources… wait, who is this “our”? There’s the racism. I would then say the heartlessness is the fact that *fourteen* refugees arrive and the immediate response is anger over the fairly slim chance that a few of them are adults, because heaven forbid we help an 18-year-old get a roof over their head and the chance of a fresh start rather than a 17-year-old, right?
This leads us nicely into the often overlooked distinction between offence and harm. If Lineker is wrong (which he isn’t) then what are the consequences? At worst, an adult refugee gets the assistance they need. You could make the argument that a child refugee would be missing out on that assistance, but frankly the problem there is how limited the numbers are in the first place because immigration even to escape war and persecution is so demonised. As for the people who are angry at Lineker’s statement, I’m not sure the arrival of f o u r t e e n refugees, whatever their age, affects them or the “general public” they claim to represent much at all. It’s not about the risk of harm. It’s about offence.
I’ll make that clear: The Sun (which, as awful as it is, does for some reason hold a lot of sway over public opinion and, in turn, political opinion) called for a man who talks about people kicking a ball around to be sacked from that job because they’re offended that he had a completely unrelated opinion different from their own. That’s the situation. So where the heck are the free speech brigade?
They were out in force when Richard Keys and Andy Gray, who also talked about people kicking a ball around, were dismissed for making sexually derogatory remarks about women and stating a female linesman was not fit for the role due to her gender – remarks that reinforce prevalent sexual harassment of women and existing barriers to women in male-dominated careers, i.e. causing harm rather than just offence, but were still seen by many as just “banter”. They were out in force when alt-right pundit Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for repeatedly violating its terms of service, culminating in sustained racial abuse and harassment against actress Leslie Jones – such harassment and abuse can and does cause long-lasting psychological harm, but as the tweets in the link show, that was seen as suppression of free speech over offence. And, of course, a couple of weeks ago *actual US presidential candidate* Donald Trump pretty much admitted to sexually assaulting women – I hope I don’t need to tell you that sexual assault is harmful, but Trump and his supporters dismissed this as “locker room banter”, and he’s still running for President even though I could continue this “harmful statements defended as free speech” paragraph forever just on the Trump campaign alone.
As the above incidents and many more show, there are a lot of people around who apparently care about nothing more than freedom of expression, no matter how much these views can cause real harm to the rights and freedoms of others (or “special snowflakes looking for offence” as they’d put it). These people use their (mistaken) conception of free speech to attack everything from combating harassment to using trigger warnings. So in comparison to that, you’d think a football presenter and crisp enthusiast who just said refugees are people and should be treated as such would be an easy case, right? But nope, just silence.
Apparently “some people are being racist and heartless towards these refugees” is just too radical a statement.
It’s almost as if those who criticise taking hate speech seriously don’t actually care about freedom of speech; only freedom to hate.