Vocabulary test

wsc322The row over Tottenham fans’ use of the word yids has started a wider debate about discriminatory terminology, argues Alan Fisher

David Cameron’s intervention in the long-running dispute over the use of the Y-word at Tottenham Hotspur took everyone by surprise. No doubt with a keen eye to the debate around free speech rather than a football audience, his interview with the Jewish Chronicle nevertheless struck a chord with many Spurs fans. “There’s a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as ‘yids’ and someone calling someone a ‘yid’ as an insult. You have to be motivated by hate. Hate speech should be prosecuted – but only when it’s motivated by hate.”

Singing and chanting serves as a form of self-identification, to represent and enhance supporters’ sense of community. For many (but not all) Spurs fans, “yid’’ is the term of choice to express their identity. However, this may change after a statement in September from the Football Association, subsequently endorsed by the Metropolitan Police, that provoked the prime minister’s comments and significantly upped the stakes in a move that has implications for every football supporter. The origins of Spurs fans’ use of the Y-word lie in pernicious anti-Semitic abuse from opposition fans in the early-to-mid-1970s. There was no logic or trigger. Tottenham have a long-standing close connection with the large Jewish community in north London but so do neighbours Arsenal and both clubs have also had Jewish representation in the boardroom. It was abuse for abuse’s sake.

Rather than resent or blame the minority, Spurs fans chose defiance and reclaimed the word to neutralise its negativity. In the vernacular since then, it is used more readily than ever before in chants and in social media to define belonging and pride. Expressing distinctiveness in our history and heritage is in part a response both to the success of rivals Chelsea and Arsenal and the fraught debate last season over a break from our roots to the Olympic site in Stratford, east London. Others, including some Jewish Spurs fans, argue the use of the Y-word is unjustified. It remains deeply offensive to Jews throughout the country, while non-Jewish Spurs fans cannot reclaim a word that historically never referred to them.

No doubt sensitive to issues around discriminatory and abusive language in the light of other cases, the FA declared that “the use of the term ‘yid’ is likely to be considered offensive by the reasonable observer”. The Metropolitan Police then warned before the home match against West Ham that anyone using the word could be committing an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act. A year ago, the Met stated that fans would not face prosecution in these circumstances. Now, Spurs fans chanting “yid” can be arrested.

Potentially this creates more problems than it solves because context has been removed. There’s no apparent distinction between opposing fans giving Nazi salutes and singing about gassing the Jews and Spurs supporters’ non-derogatory use of the word. Following this contorted logic, if I as a Jew used it, I could be liable to arrest. How are the police to deal with thousands of Spurs fans singing in unison? Rumours that some Spurs fans chanted “pid” may be apocryphal but illustrates the problems of proof. Fans reacted with predictable defiance. The Y-word was sung in the usual songs but the most popular chant was, “we’ll sing what we want”. The test for section 5 is that abusive or insulting language or behaviour is likely to cause offence to anyone present. This new interpretation based on the word itself, with less emphasis on context, may set a precedent to be applied to different sets of supporters or relating to other abusive or derogatory language. It may apply away from football too.

The Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust issued advice to fans in the event of arrest and a specialist firm of solicitors were on standby. One person believed to be a Tottenham fan was arrested and appears in court later this month. Notorious for their past lack of consultation with supporters, the club have worked with the Trust on a survey that is currently with season ticket-holders and they promise to respond to the findings. I suspect most Spurs fans as a whole will not object. Some Jewish supporters detest it, others tolerate it (I defend its use but don’t use it to describe myself), many accept its use in this context.

The FA and Met have done little to unravel the complexity of the Spurs situation and the prime minister has publicly disagreed with them. Nevertheless the debate has undoubtedly contributed to a better understanding of the nature of discrimination and the role of language, which in the long-run is good for the game. Among Tottenham supporters, after recent events I sense that attitudes have only become more entrenched.

From WSC 322 December 2013