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Month: July, 2012

How football acts a surrogate for middle class escapism

Former Liverpool F.C. manager, Bill Shankley, famously said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much, more important than that”. It was an astute observation. The fanaticism and infatuation of football’s fandom is, almost, beyond parallel. It has been thoroughly hardwired into British culture, absorbing not only our time, but our emotions – provoking, alternatively, frustration, debilitation, gratification and exhilaration. For some British citizens, their affinity with their football team will be the most enduring and defining relationship of their life.

The cult that surrounds football intrigues me – why the devotion? Why the unquestioning loyalty? Most of all, what promotes the rigid and – at times, hysteric – tribalism?

Objectively, the sport is aesthetically pleasing and structurally dramatic. The elegant blend of athleticism, intelligence and technique is visually stimulating, while the unpredictable structure of the sport gives rise to frenetic crescendos and dramatic intrigue. But, other sports contain these features. Other mediums enthrall us, yet we neither revere, say, the films of Christopher Nolan to the same extent, nor submit those who fail to share our taste in music to pernicious rivalry.

For some, football’s hold is lubricated by family ties. I have vivid memories of travelling to Anfield as a six-year-old with my father to watch Tottenham Hotspur in the quarter-final of the F.A. Cup in 1995 and – importantly – the sheer joy associated with the victory secured on that day. Indeed, the image of ex-Tottenham striker and talisman, Teddy Sheringham, still arouses a juvenile feeling of unbridled veneration. In this way, football was a vehicle for parental bonding and, in part, shaped my adolescent relationship with my father. Those with families – in particular, fathers or father-figures – that are more ingrained into the fortunes of their football clubs, will display a stronger familial attraction to the sport.

However, the universal reason behind our addiction to football is rooted in broader cultural trends – on the one hand, a yearning to subscribe to a community, and a need to be part of something more significant than merely the individual. On the other, an impulse to escape from the pressures of our routine and stratified lives, and immerse ourselves in the uncontrollable fortunes of others. In fact, it is utterly, and perversely, liberating to, willingly, hold oneself hostage to the actions of a third party.

That football engenders solidarity among its fans is well-established. The best – and, most disturbing – example came after the ex-Sheffield United striker, Ched Evans, was convicted for an offence of rape; a certain section of Sheffield United’s fanbase exposed the complainant to unpleasant language via Twitter. While, of course, this instance is far from the norm, football fans positively demand fidelity to their clubs. This premium on loyalty feeds its’ appeal – because fandom is leveraged by commitment, anyone can participate, provided they are willing. And, in this way, supporting a team represents something of a social leveler – inside the stadium, fans are not judged on their appearance, or wealth, or personal characteristics, but, simply, their allegiance to the cause. For ninety minutes, all fans are united in a common purpose – and, understandably, they derive comfort and familiarity in the process.

Further, I believe that the delirium that surrounds football has been exacerbated by its’ recent change of audience and, in particular, its’ engulfment of the middle classes. In terms of football’s history, its’ status as a surrogate for more expansive, and abstract, cultural needs is a relatively recent phenomenon. Traditionally, football was the exclusive province of the working class – subscription to a particular team depended on geographical location, and demonstrating an affection for that team reflected the principal importance of the locality in the individual’s personal psyche. This is no longer the case. A variety of technological developments that led to the increased geographical – and, indeed, social – mobility, has led to a more fluid and esoteric society. In short, and owing to frequent inter-city migration, one’s identity is no longer associated with the locality in which they inhabit.

Similarly, football is no longer a working class pursuit. For example, the price of watching Premier League football – either at the grounds, or via a subscription to Sky Sports – certainly suggests a viable and healthy middle class membership exists. And, the presence of corporate hospitality seating represents the virile interest that our middle classes exhibit towards football. The fact that the former Chief Executive of Barclays Plc, Bob Diamond, proudly tweeted a picture of himself with John Terry and the F.A. Cup reflects the omni-class component to footballs modern fanbase.

There is a perception that the emergence of the middle-class football fan has had an adverse effect on football – that the increased finance has led to an inequality of arms, that the atmosphere has been punctured, and that the rise of ‘glory hunters’, who merely support the successful teams has cultivated a more superficial aspect of football fandom. These are, to some extent, valid observations. In reality, however, the middle-class’s colonization of football has cultivated a far deeper shift in the way the game is followed.

For example, I suspect that a deeper emotional investment in the fortunes of football teams is directly linked to the deeper financial investment that modern football fandom demands – because supporters finance their clubs budgets, they demand an input into how it is spent. Similarly, because they finance footballers’ large salaries, fans feel that they are entitled to, and expect, elite performance. Along the way, the fan’s dependence on football has heightened – turning one’s back on football would, at this point, represent an admission that all the wealth spent on pursuing the game was, essentially, misplaced.

In addition, football has been affected by a revolution in the dissemination of information, which – while hardly the exclusive property of the middle classes – is certainly most closely intertwined with the social and professional lives of the highly-literate, bourgeois, folk. Essentially, and as innovations in technology have fed the professional classes’ gargantuan appetite for information, they are now accustomed to its’ absorption from a myriad of sources, and at regular intervals during the day. The upshot is that football’s fandom now positively soaks itself with constant information regarding football – most notably, of course, via endless, rolling news channels such as Sky Sports News.

Indeed, the precise method by which information regarding football is promulgated reflects the proliferation of the professional classes into football’s fandom. Whether consciously or unconsciously, news relating to football now emulates the mediums in which financial data and economic development is dispersed – for instance, the ever-updating (or “breaking”) culture of Sky Sports News mirrors the hectic atmosphere of the stock exchange, while the reliance placed on transfer gossip echoes the importance of insider knowledge in business.

The reasons why the middle classes have developed a fascination with football are, perhaps, less well-established. Principally, I believe that football embodies an element of escapism that innately appeals to our middle classes. Supporting football is, above, all easy. It is non-intellectual and non-pressurised. It is also direct and visceral; rather than determining success over quarters, football assesses competence over ninety minutes. Further, although football is inherently, and infuriatingly, unfair, being a supporter is thoroughly non-political and predictable. Finally, football is utterly unconventional, where – for instance – turnovers increase during recession and the impulses of the heart overrule machinations of the brain.

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The law should not treat ritual circumcision as a sacred cow

On 7 May 2012, the Amtsgericht Cologne ruled that a Muslim boy’s ritual circumcision represented criminal behaviour, and violated his constitutional right to bodily integrity. The defendant performed a circumcision on the a 4-year-old child (“K1”), in his medical practice in Cologne. The operation was performed under anaesthesia, and with the aid of a scalpel. There was no medical basis for the procedure, but was requested by the parents in line with their Islamic faith. A translation of the judgment can be found at the Durham Law School website (http://www.dur.ac.uk/law/news/?itemno=15002). Essentially, the court held that the defence of “social adequacy” (which appears to resemble the defence of “necessity” in English law) does not prevent a ritual circumcision from satisfying the elements of an offence. In addition, the Defendant’s actions were not justified by consent – K1’s consent could not be given “due to a lack of intellectual maturity”. The fact that his parents consented “could not justify the infliction of bodily harm”.

The court also performed a balancing exercise of competing rights established under the German Basic Code. It considered the interaction between, on the one hand, the parent’s right to freedom of faith and conscience and their “natural” right to care and bring up their children and, on the other, the child’s right to “bodily integrity and self-determination”. The court remarked that ritual circumcision is “unreasonable in the sense of proportionality”, and noted that it “changes the child’s body permanently and irreparably”.

The German government has expressed public support for the practice of ritual circumcision (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18833145), while various commentators have considered the merits of the ruling. Debate has generally been stratified, from one extreme (Giles Fraser described the decision as “ridiculous and offensive” – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/jul/17/german-circumcision-affront-jewish-muslim-identity) to the other (Catherine Bennett wrote that circumcision is “an affront to decent human behaviour – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/22/catherine-bennett-circumcision-is-bad).

The principal argument behind criminalising ritual circumcision concerns the issue of consent – because infants cannot give informed consent, the unlawful physical contact that is committed against them should represent an offence. Indeed, under liberal principles, circumcision represents a severe interference with the rights of individuals. In contrast, the arguments in support of circumcision stress its’ status as an accepted religious custom and symbol of religious identity. The debate rarely touches on scientific matters – although there can be no doubt that circumcision represents a permanent and unalterable bodily change, there is insubstantial evidence that it causes adverse health consequences (http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2011/jun/15/male-circumcision-ban-health-religion-debate?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487).

Ritual circumcision occupies a rather peculiar space in criminal law – removing another’s foreskin should, prima facie, constitute an offence under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. However, it does not. The leading case on the liability of those performing ritual circumcision is Re J (Specific Issue Orders: Muslim upbringing and circumcision) [1999] 2 F.L.R. 678, where Wall J (as he was then known) ruled that male ritual circumcision was lawful, provided there was joint parental consent. His reasoning was endorsed by the Court of Appeal at the time (Re J (Specific Issue Orders: Muslim upbringing and circumcision) [2000] 1 F.C.R. 307, CA).

Re J concerned a non-practising Muslim father who sought an order requiring a non-Muslim mother to bring their child up as a Muslim and, pursuant to that, for there to be a circumcision. Wall J observed that there was a dearth of judicial references regarding the legality of ritual male circumcision, but relied on an obiter remark made by Lord Templeman in the controversial case of Brown, which assumed that it was lawful. His Lordship stated that “…other activities carried on with consent by or on behalf of the injured person have been accepted as lawful notwithstanding that they involve actual bodily harm or may cause serious bodily harm. Ritual circumcision, tattooing, ear-piercing and violent sports including boxing are lawful activities”.

Although the Human Rights Act 1998 was not yet in force, the learned judge in Re J  balanced the competing rights of the child and parents, when assessing the appropriateness of granting an order for circumcision. He concluded that the parental right to manifest their religion under Article 9 of the European Convention trumped the welfare of the child, and placed significant emphasis on the fact that the parents had given joint consent.

Had Wall J considered the child’s right to bodily integrity under Article 8, the right to freedom of religion under Article 9 and the right not to be subject to inhuman and degrading treatment under Article 3, he may well have arrived at a different conclusion. However, in a case decided after the enactment of the Human Rights Act, Re S (Specific Issue Order: Religion: Circumcision) [2004] EWHC 1282 (Fam), Baron J declined to carry out a structured balancing exercise of Convention rights, and followed the ratio in Re J – namely that where both parents agree ritual circumcision is lawful.

The position, then, is clear – by virtue of the common law, and in the exercise of joint parental responsibility, male ritual circumcision is lawful. The basis behind this principle is less clear – it is not consolidated by statute, while the common law fails to elucidate why ritual circumcision is lawful. Lord Templeman’s reference to ritual circumcision in Brown outlined above is particularly perplexing; it was grouped together with activities that demand consent, while male infants cannot give informed consent.

It seems inconceivable that, were the issue to be considered by the European Court, this position would be deemed to be Convention-compliant – the current state of the law simply does not accommodate the rights of the male infant alongside the rights of his parents to perpetuate their religious beliefs. Indeed, the proposition that the consent of the infant (which of, course, cannot be given) is overriden by the consent of their parents is, conceptually, flimsy – not only does the theory undermine any notion of self-autonomy, but imbues parents with a disproportionate level of influence over their children. In this way, criminalising this practice would, in theory, compliment a liberal democracy, a core aspect of which is that individuals should exercise control over their own bodies.

Of course, what works in theory is not always suitable in practice. Would it be prudent to criminalise a practice established, and venerated, over centuries? Outlawing the practice of circumcision would threaten a ritual of critical importance to Jewish and Muslim identities. In McFarlane v Relate Avon Limited [2010] EWCA Civ B1, Lord Justice Laws criticised the notion that the law should not intrude on religiously significant customs – he stated that: “legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled”. The learned judge’s logic is fundamentally sound, but it occurs to me that there is mileage in the wisdom of respecting modes of behaviour that have stood the test of time.

Indeed, the law on circumcision is interesting precisely because it trespasses on the issue of religion’s relationship with the law. That religion has provided many with a valuable moral compass is a grave understatement – as such, one might expect the law to compliment institutions of religion. On the other hand, the rule of law would be safeguarded under a truly secular legal system – the rule of law imports a sense of neutrality to the law, demands that laws are conceptually consistent, and forbids the type of inconsistency that immunising religious practices would represent. In fact, this is why, on balance, the law on circumcision should be reformed. A fair and equitable legal system should not reinforce inconsistency or consecrate any ‘sacred cows’, however well-established or culturally-rich they might be.

 

 

 

 

 

A philosophical defence of “Geordie Shore”

For those that aren’t aware, a television programme entitled Geordie Shore is currently being shown on the MTV channel. As part of the structured reality genre, it is faithful to its American predecessor, Jersey Shore, in that its premise is to place a number of young adults from a distinct culture – who had never met – into residence with each other, and filming the fall out. Consistent with MTV’s general outlook, Geordie Shore was designed to appeal to young adults and teenagers – and, in particular, those familiar with the culture of clubbing, binge drinking and promiscuity. Indeed, the makers of the show openly promoted the cast as “strut[ting] their stuff in mini-skirts shorter than belts and wearing more layers of fake tan than seems humanly possible, whilst the guys pump iron at the gym and drink alcohol as if it’s going out of fashion” while offering a “peak into their glamorous lives and party lifestyles”.

It is in an apt description. Although the show, having reached its third season, focusses to some extent on the personal relationships that have developed between the members of the cast, its modus operandi is still an insight into attractive, vain and exuberant individuals determined to drink, ‘party’ and sleep with the opposite sex. The characters are brash, crude and rude. Their alcohol-fuelled antics are controversial, reckless and shocking. Yet, the show’s popularity has consistently blossomed – to the point that slightly under a million viewers watched the debut episode of Season Three. And, while the critical reaction has been somewhat mixed, there is no doubt that the cast members are well-established names among the Mail Online sub-culture.

On the other hand, the show has received sneering and contemptuous treatment from various sections of the media. I was particularly struck by an article written by Charlie Brooker, published in The Guardian on 01.07.12 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/01/geordie-shore-noblest-people-in-britain). The article is a condescending appraisal of the show, in which the cast members are referred to as “unbelievable idiots” and “walking caricatured receptacles for spite”. His core argument is that the cast members should be hated, and even – “looked down on and despise[d]”. In doing so, they are providing a “noble…public service”. I am prepared to forgive the misanthropic Brooker, for his polemics are usually well-aimed and well-delivered. On this occasion, however, I feel that he misses the point.

Brooker mistakenly amalgamates the programme with other contemporary reality shows, such as Made in Chelsea and The Only Way Is Essex. While these works are highly structured, arguably scripted, shows which revolve around pre-determined storylines, set-pieces and sophisticated production, Geordie Shore is unstructured, unrefined and uninhibited television. It is more resemblant of a documentary than a “structured” reality show – in fact, the camera crew have, on occasion, intervened during high-tempered scenes.

Indeed, the anarchic style of production suits the personalities of the cast members, and, even, reflects the show’s genuine worth. The brilliance of Geordie Shore is not the entertainment of their behaviour per se – although their antics are perversely captivating – but in the refreshing self-determinism of its cast. Their personalities and traits may not appeal to metropolitan elites such as Brooker, but the cast members are thoroughly content with who they are, and the lives they lead. The show is entirely devoid of the type of introspection, awkardness and obsequiousness that characterises its competitors. Instead, the viewer is left with the effervescence and pure confidence of its extroverted cast.

Take the opening credits of the show – Jay proudly proclaims that “[his] biggest fear is getting wrinkles” because his outlook is not contaminated by self-doubt; Holly states “I’m fake. I’m flirty. And, I’ve got double F’s” with clinical bluntness precisely because she is not ashamed of those facts; while Ricci boasts that he possesses “the looks, the charm. It just works”, revealing utter self-assurance. The characters behave with complete honesty – without any abandon or proclivity to embarrassment, they fornicate, vomit and vandalise, all in the knowledge that their actions are being recorded for public consumption. Unlike the intrigue and tension of Made in Chelsea, where flirtation among the cast members simmers throughout the series, the cast of Geordie Shore hurtle into sexual relationships with striking spontaneity. The closest the show gets to a Spencer-Caggie Chelsea-style courtship is the Holly-James dynamic – Holly decides that she wants to “bang” James; drunkenly propositions him over a series of episodes; eventually, an inebriated James relents.

The cast are, indeed, direct descendants, and embodiments, of the philosophy of existentialism. They have, implicitly, subscribed to its principal proposition, which is that the actual life of the individual constitutes their “essence”, rather than any pre-determined notion that defines what it is to be a human. In the same way that Kierkegaard and Satre talked of humans creating their own values and determining their own meaning to their lives, Jay, Gaz and their colleagues are masters of their own identities, and do not seek to conform with the cultural and social zeitgeist. They are enemies of what Bret Easton Ellis has termed the “Empire” in his legendary article on Charlie Sheen (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/03/16/bret-easton-ellis-notes-on-charlie-sheen-and-the-end-of-empire.html), the homogenous, pre-packaged and predictable entertainment status quoGeordie Shore is emphatically post-Empire, screaming non-conformity to the predictable reality entertainment genre, vomitting on itself unashamedly (metaphorically, and – in the case of Charlotte – literally) and sticking a middle finger up to the faux-intellectual elites that read Brooker’s Guardian column.

Yes, the cast of Geordie Shore are vain and superficial. Most in civilised society would consider that their priorities in life are somewhat distorted. Their behaviour is frequently alarming. But “hate” them? We should admire the self-confidence of this motley gang, and venerate the fact that they are comfortable in their own identities. It was recently announced that a major character, Jay, would be leaving the show; when asked to comment, he maintained that he would “go out with a bang”. You wouldn’t expect any less from this uninhibited bunch.

The Ferdinand brothers and the perversity of elevating racial abuse

On 23rd October 2011, during a football match between Chelsea FC and Queens Park Rangers (“QPR”), John Terry of Chelsea said the words “black c*nt” to Anton Ferdinand of QPR. Ferdinand is of Black Caribbean and Irish heritage. Terry admitted that he said the words, but averred that they were preceded by words to the effect of “I didn’t call you a…”. He was charged with an offence under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, aggravated by Section 28 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.  Last week, District Judge Riddle delivered a verdict of not guilty.

Much has been written on, inter alia, the decision to prosecute and the unpleasantness of modern professional football. My interest, however, has been piqued by two remarks made in connection with the matter – firstly, in examination-in-chief, Anton Ferdinand said “when someone brings your colour into it, it takes it to another level and it’s very hurtful”. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-18760180).

Secondly, Anton’s brother, Rio, re-tweeted a tweet which said “Looks like Ashley Cole’s going to be their choc ice. The again he’s always been a sell out. Shame on him.” Rio responded: “I hear you fella! Choc ice is classic! hahahahahaha!!” Cole is a teammate of Terry’s, who the Defence called as a witness at trial. He is also black. Most interpreted the comment as a suggestion that, like the Choc Ice brand ice cream, Cole has a black exterior and a white interior. The Urban Dictionary defines it – alongside other somewhat creative definitions – as “a black person who acts like a white person”. For his part, Ferdinand has since claimed that it is “not a racist term. Its a type of slang/term used by many for someone who is being fake.” For the purposes of this post, I will assume that the well-established definition was at the forefront of Mr. Ferdinand’s mind.

Most observers would not dispute the logic behind the first statement. It is a commonly-held presumption that racial abuse is more serious than abuse that does not account for the abusee’s racial background. This much is generally reflected in sentencing policy, where racial motivation frequently constitutes an aggravating factor. The basis behind elevating racial abuse above non-racial abuse is fundamentally virtuous; racist language represents corrosive and arbitrary thought, which – in theory – has no place in a civilised society.

However, why is racial abuse, per se,  more offensive to the abusee than non-racial abuse? Why, to paraphrase Anton Ferdinand, is calling another person a “black c*nt” more offensive than simply a “c*nt”? That people generally dislike being categorised according to their physical characteristics is self-evident; we prefer to be judged on our personal, or emotional, characteristics, which provide a more accurate method of defining who we truly are. Nonetheless, the reality  is that Mr. Ferdinand’s black skin is merely a product of his genetic makeup, and unalterable in exactly the same fashion that all of our physical characteristics are. Although I have no doubt that being black is culturally significant in modern society, it is, essentially, a physical characteristic, and akin to eye colour, hair colour, hairline shape, allergies, etc. In theory, then, we should be no more offended when another abuses us with reference to our skin colour than any other genetically-determined, physical traits. In fact, it occurs to me that, from a logical perspective, we should be more offended by abuse that focusses on our personal, or emotional qualities or behaviour; those are the qualities that are unique to us, that we can alter, may have invested in, or are, indeed, proud of.

But, in the main, we are not. Insulting someone for being – for example – unattractive, or small, is not perceived as serious as insulting another on the basis of the colour of their skin. I suspect that the reason for this can be attributed to long-standing cultural trends. Concentrated migration into certain areas has led to the emergence of tightly-knit communities who are defined, partly, by race. Racial characteristics – chiefly, skin colour – became indicative of one’s membership to that particular community, and, therefore, skin colour represented a core aspect of one’s identity.

In this way, Anton’s position is perfectly understandable, and broadly representative of social norms. His brother’s remarks, on the other hand, illustrate how perverse that position can be. Implicit in the “Choc Ice” term is that those with black skin are somehow unique, on a personal level, from those with white skin. This is plainly nonsense and, counter-intuitively, a concept that serves to perpetuate the misguided idea that black individuals are somehow distinct from white individuals. I believe that this vein of thinking derives from the prevalence of skin colour as an integral aspect of one’s identity – because being black is of critical importance to Rio Ferdinand’s identity, he presumes that Ashley Cole, another individual with black skin, will, or should, conform to his attitudes and behaviour.

Rio Ferdinand has been a powerful advocate for anti-racism, and the impression one gets is that he is committed to eradicating racism from sport and society. While he should be commended for such an intention, I fear that the way in which he – and others – conceive of race undermines it on a fundamental level. If society, and anti-racism campaigners, are to  successfully combat racism – be it overt, implicit or institutionalised – all in society must start to think of skin colour as a physical trait, and of racial difference as genetic variation. One cannot seek to construct a racially ‘colour-blind’ society, while, simultaneously, prizing their own, individual, racial characteristics as principal features of their identity.  This means that those representing the anti-racism lobby, and anyone interested in anti-racism, must resist the familiar instinct to elevate racial abuse to (per Anton Ferdinand) “another level”, however counter-intuitive it might seem.

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