What’s a bigger abuse? Suppose I say you look like a donkey or a monkey or an orangutan even? Or if I say that you have sex with your mother? Careful how you answer that one; it’s a trick question.
If you fell into the trap and gave the usual answer (“I’d rather be called a monkey than be accused of sleeping with my mother”), then consider what we know of the facts of the Harbhajan Singh vs Andrew Symonds dispute.
So many lies have been told by both sides that it’s hard to establish what really happened. But according to cricket writers who’ve spoken to Indian players, events went something like this: Harbhajan went up to Brett Lee, who was bowling, and said, “Well bowled.” Symonds, who was nearby, rushed up to the Indian batsman and began sledging him using such words as “bastard” along with variations on the F-word. Harbhajan retaliated with a few F-words of his own. But when he realized he was getting nowhere with the Australians, he fell back on the taunt that had so angered Symonds during Australia’s tour of India and called him “a big monkey”.
Symonds treated this as a racial epithet (which the Indians have always denied it is; the reference is said to be to the white gel that Symonds puts on his lips) as did the rest of the Australian team. “That’s a shit-word, mate” Harbhajan was told. “That’s racial vilification.” And so on.
Fortunately for Harbhajan, the stump microphone did not pick up what he’d said but the match referee believed the testimony of the Australians and imposed a three-match ban. Later, when all hell broke loose and various Internet jokers suggested that the batsman had actually said “teri maa ki”, the Indian side decided to adopt this as the official position.
Your mum vs a monkey: Is obscenity easier to accept than a racial slur? (Steve Holland / Reuters)
Asked by judge Hansen at the appeal hearing what happened, Harbhajan claimed he’d said “teri maa ki”. Sachin Tendulkar, the other batsman on the pitch, backed this version. The judge asked what the expression meant. The Indians explained that it was an obscene reference to having sex with your mother.
Fine, said the judge, I’ll accept that you didn’t call him a monkey and revoke the three-match ban. Instead, I’ll dock half your match fee for using an obscenity.
So there you have it. Call someone a monkey and you sit out most of the series. Say he’s had sex with his mother and you are let off with a fine.
That’s why I urged you to be careful at the beginning of this column—in a politically correct world, the worst abuse is not the one that involves sex or incest. It’s the animal references that get you into trouble.
Ever since judge Hansen issued his ruling, many friends have asked me variations on the same question: What do we tell our children? Do we say “Beta, do not call your friend a dog or a monkey. Just suggest that he has it off with his mother. Or you can say that he sleeps with his sister?” What kind of sense does such a ruling make?
I can see their point. Even if we believe the official Indian position that Harbhajan never called Symonds a monkey, we are still left with the appeal judge’s conclusion that maa-bahen gaalis are acceptable in a sense that “monkey” is not.
Is this political correctness gone mad or what? Well yes and no. My first instinct is to agree with popular Indian sentiment and to say that it’s crazy to treat monkey as a bigger deal than a “teri maa ki” gaali. Kids call each other monkeys all the time. We let them do so. But we treat maa-bahen gaalis entirely differently.
But the more I’ve thought about it, the more convinced I am that judge Hansen got it right. It may well be that “monkey” was not meant as a racial abuse. But clearly Symonds treated it as such and “monkey” was therefore put on the list of banned words for the match. And in any case, the judge’s concern was not with the exact words used. His job was to distinguish between a racial slur and a simple abuse. And once he decided (rightly or wrongly) that Harbhajan had used an obscenity rather than a racial epithet, he took the right decision. Any obscenity (no matter whether it involves your mother, sister, brother, father or dog) is better than any racial slur.
What makes the difference? Well, equal opportunity, for want of abetter expression.
The reason we regard racism, communalism or casteism as being particularly reprehensible is because they focus on factors over which an individual has no control. The reason why “nigger” is a much uglier epithet than say “fucker” is because a black person has no choice in the matter: He was born that way. Why is it so disgusting to call a lower caste person a “chamaar” or a “bhangi”? Again, because it focuses on accidents of birth; nobody gets to choose their caste.
Take the kind of racism that Indians often encounter in Europe. If somebody called one of us a “stupid bastard”, we would be shocked but we would not feel the deep anger that we do when we are called “wogs” or “Pakis”.
It’s the same with communalism. If a Hindu gets into a fight with an Indian Muslim and gives him a maa-bahen gaali, it’s an unpleasant incident. But if he calls him a “bloody Muslim” or a “Pakistan-lover”, then the incident becomes much more serious.
It’s the same elsewhere. In the last World Cup football final, Zinedine Zidane, a French-Algerian Muslim, lost control and assaulted an Italian player. At first it was suggested that the Italian had called him a terrorist and the world was outraged. But when it turned out that he’d only made an obscene remark about his sister, our outrage faded.
However angry we may be with the Australians, we must see the point of the controversy. As long as both sides are equal opportunity abusers and as long as the abuses are general in nature, it’s unpleasant but not discriminatory. Once the abuses focus on accidents of birth—race, gender, ethnicity, religion etc.—then we are in much more dangerous territory.
So, let’s forget the actual words (“monkey” or “maa ki”). The important lesson is this: Sportsmen may be abusive louts. But they must never be allowed to become racist louts. Let that happen and you can kiss the spirit of global sport goodbye.
(Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org)