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Bigotry at silly point

india Updated: Aug 22, 2006 03:38 IST

In recent days Dean Jones’s defenders have made interesting arguments in mitigation. Allan Border argued that calling Hashem Amla a terrorist wasn’t so bad because he knew for a fact that Amla’s team mates called him that to his face. Except that they didn’t. Gordon Templeton, the South African team’s media manager bluntly described Border’s claim as nonsense. Border, he said, was trying to shield Jones: no South African team member had ever used ‘terrorist’ as a nickname for Amla.

Peter Roebuck, in the Hindu (August 12), forsook defence and went on the attack. Jones’s critics, he wrote, “… hiss and snarl like cornered canines”. They were slavering dogs because they were using up stores of indignation that might be better used denouncing ethnic cleansing, grinding poverty and the bombing of the innocent. Right. Just as Roebuck might be better employed digging up landmines in Lebanon or tending lepers in India instead of turning out copy for the sports pages.

But we get the point. Border and Roebuck are saying that Jones is basically a good guy and that given the scale of evil in the world, his offence was trivial. He was stupid, idiotic, foolish and insensitive in saying what he did but not bigoted.

What did he say? He said, “the terrorist has got another wicket,” when Amla, a bearded South African Muslim of Indian descent, took a catch. Jones thought he was making a private comment to his fellow commentators but the microphone was live and it carried his words to a television public.

Harsha Bhogle’s reaction to the incident moved along the same lines, “It was a throwaway line that people would have used at work-places and factories all the time. Sitting under a tree with a cup of coffee we can say what we like, we can get away with it. But with a ‘live’ microphone he has let the world know what he thought. He’s been a bit stupid but, knowing Deano, he’ll be the first to put his hand up and say that.” Bhogle is saying that Dean Jones was unprofessional and indiscreet and “a bit stupid”.

Roebuck nudged us towards the reasonable conclusion. “Does anyone suppose, though, that his comment betrayed the secrets of his soul? Has any rancour been detected therein?” If you’re not used to Roebuck’s rhetoric, this meant Jones didn’t mean it, couldn’t have meant it because everyone knew that Jones wasn’t a bigot or a racist.

This was the same defence that Darren Lehmann mounted when he called the Sri Lankans “black cunts”. It was also the defence used by Jewish friends of Mel Gibson (another man who has spent some growing-up time in Australia) after his anti-Semitic outburst. Mel, they said, ‘wasn’t like that’.

Wasn’t like what? What does a man’s track record have to be before a bigoted comment made by him qualifies as bigotry? It’s unlikely that a television commentator will have prior form or known links with the National Front or the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or a pro-apartheid party. But why should we need more than the evidence of our ears?

Let’s try to set this in a ‘Western’ perspective because Jones’s defenders seem to be having trouble appreciating the vileness of what Jones said in the context of cricket in Sri Lanka. Here’s a hypothetical circumstance. Tiger Woods is playing golf at the US Open. He sinks a putt, there’s a pause and the commentator, thinking he’s in a commercial break, says to his colleague, with the microphones on, “The nigger’s holed another one.” How long do you think that commentator would last on prime time? How many golf correspondents and commentators would characterise his comment as a ‘bit stupid’? And how many people would buy the line that “some of my best friends are…”?

The truth is that no American commentator working for a major TV channel would use ‘kike’ or ‘nigger’ or ‘faggot’ with their colleagues around even if they thought the mikes were switched off. Because political correctness, in the best sense of that term, has made these words unsayable. To use these words in polite society is to court ostracism.

Dean Jones said what he did because he thought his colleagues in the box would be amused, because he didn’t think the words he used were taboo. Jones assumed that a remark tossed off like that would pass without challenge or reproach. That’s the real significance of this incident, not the fact that he got caught with the microphones on.

“The terrorist has got another wicket”: this is the casual bigotry of the locker room which assumes that the guys will go along. It’s bigotry founded on an assumption of shared prejudice because you can bet Dean Jones’s last Australian dollar that he wouldn’t have said what he did with Rameez Raja and Imran Khan in the room.

That’s why the eagerly forgiving attitude of his peers is disappointing. They’ve responded like members of a guild, not as professional men looking out for cricket or broadcasting. Revealingly, not once in Roebuck’s article is there any mention of Hashem Amla, let alone any sympathy for a young sportsman who finds that the suspicion his beard provokes in everyday life has followed him on to the cricket field thanks to a commentator who mistakes bigotry for cleverness.

The reason ‘kike’, ‘faggot’ and ‘nigger’ are taboo today is because public opinion backed up by social sanction made them unsayable. If an Indian commentator was caught calling a Muslim player a ‘katua’ or a Dalit player a ‘chamar’ he would never work again. Roebuck and Border and cricket’s commentariat seem to think calling a bearded Muslim a ‘terrorist’ doesn’t belong in the same category of proscribed words. Well, it’s up to us to persuade them that it does, through a policy of zero tolerance.

It has been unsubtly suggested in the press that Jones was sacked from Ten Sports because his employers were Muslim. I hope that isn’t true. I’d like to think that ESPN, Star Sports and Zee Sports, regardless of the religious beliefs of their owners would have done the same thing. India is a secular, pluralist nation and sports channels that work out of this country need to make sure that the people they employ respect those ideals.

Meanwhile Border and Roebuck, when they’re done with special pleading, could do worse than take their cue from an Australian colleague writing about the same incident: “From Lehmann to Justin Harrison to Lleyton Hewitt — and the numerous controversies surrounding many Aboriginal athletes — our reputation as a fair and tolerant sporting nation has taken a battering in recent years. Yet the biggest problem is not how we are perceived outside our borders but rather how we perceive ourselves. If, after the Jones controversy, we tolerate the outburst and roll our collective eyes at the whistleblower, we have a problem far more serious than mere overseas perception.” (Alex Brown, Sydney Morning Herald, August 9, 2006)

The writer is a historian and author of Secular Common Sense. His book on cricket, Men in White, will be published later this year

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