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Heaps of Woe

The ancient Greeks were a wonderful people, whose reliance on slaves and women to do all the actual work meant they could devote themselves to increasing the size of their brains, and Heaps in the desertthen devote those gigantic brains to the asking of brilliantly pointless questions, many of which still entertain and irritate philosophy students today.

One such is the sorites paradox, or the little-by-little problem. The best known example is that of the heap. Briefly, imagine a heap of sand (or salt, or sugar, or other small and heapable thing). Let’s say that heap contains 1,000,000,000 grains. Subtracting one grain from this heap to leave 999,999,999 doesn’t mean it’s no longer a heap. There would be no practical way to tell, just by looking, and you would be happy to describe either number as a heap. And the same is true when subtracting another, and another, and another, and so on. This means in principle that a heap, minus one, is still a heap.

Yet keep removing the grains, and you’ll end up with a heap of one grain, and that, well, that ain’t no heap at all. Worse, the application of the rule implies that you could have a heap composed of no grains, or even negative amounts of sand. So where’s the dividing line, and why is that dividing line minus one not a heap? The problem – that of vague predicates – is a persistent one and crops up in all kinds of fun places. My favourite solution is the blanket denial of such things as heaps. Heaps? Don’t be ridiculous. Simply impossible. No problem here. La la la la la …

So with this in mind, how many people making monkey noises do you need to make a crowd racist?

Evidently, if they all were, then it would be a racist crowd; if only one of them was, or none, then it wouldn’t be. This came to mind watching the recent second leg of the Spanish Supercopa, as a small-but-audible minority of Barcelona fans decided the best way to respond to the sight of a black man playing for the opposition was with the notorious oo-oo-oohs of the depressingly ignorant.

Now, everybody was at pains to stress that this was a minority, and rightly so; if the entire crowd had been at it, there’s no way that Sky’s commentator could have described the chants as “unfortunate” (and, while you kind of know what he meant, it’s not as though the chants were the result of a terribly coincidental series of Larry David-style misjudgements – a casually picked up banana here, a too-hot cup of coffee there – culminating in that horrible moment just before the credits where you have to hide behind a cushion. Pom pom pom POM, pa-pom …). Those responsible have been condemned by some right-thinking Barcelona fans as “not real cules”, while the idiotic few have been roundly condemned by the Spanish press, politicians, officials from both clubs, and the players.

That sentence is only true if you delete everything from “while” onwards.

The thing with racism is it doesn’t require a majority. As Batman said, all that is required for evil to prosper is that good men do nothing, and similarly all it takes to make any collection of people – be it a football crowd, a political party, or a country – appear racist, at least to the target, is an audible minority couched in a silent majority. Saying nothing isn’t doing nothing; it’s tacit acceptance, or at least acknowledgement. Unlike a heap of sand, individual members of a crowd are independent moral agents, with free will, and while the very nature of crowds perhaps diminishes that sense of freedom, it would be weak indeed to suggest that it could lead to a justifiable and complete abrogation of responsibility. If someone’s being a prick, you really should be calling them on it.

It was suggested to me that the reason the Spanish press have remained largely silent on the issue is that it serves to encourage rather than diminish racism, which seems to be linked to the idea that the abuse is not at heart motivated by bigotry against black players but by fans seeking to put off members of the opposition. Don’t report it, and they won’t think it effective. This allows football associations and newspapers to pretend that the problem isn’t one of race but simply one of footballing antipathy, and as such not something that needs to be legislated against in particular. It’s nonsense.

If you’re using racist abuse to distract, then you are aware that the power of distraction derives from the racism. This is why you make monkey noises rather than, say, mimicking a walrus. You’re seeking to distract your target by making a noise that conveys the message: “you are like a monkey because you are black”, which in turn implies “you are inferior to me, because you are like a monkey”. Which is, I would suggest, incontrovertibly racist. That you’re being racist for what you consider to be a more noble cause is of little relevance, in much the same way that an honour killing is still murder, even if you’ve got the family’s best interests at heart. At best, the defence amounts to “I’m only racist when I see a black person playing for Real Madrid [or whoever] and want them to fall over”, which is the complementary bromide to “some of my best friends are black”, and only means that you’re a hypocrite as well as a bigot.

I don’t for a second want to imply that all Barcelona fans that were in the stadium are seething bigots; I have absolutely no idea and wouldn’t presume to presume. Nor do I want to imply that any fan who heard the chanting but did nothing is, themselves, racist; that doesn’t really follow. What I am saying is that the racism of a minority and the tolerance of a majority amounts to what I suppose we can characterise as a racist experience, specifically for Marcelo and generally for everyone else. And we know that this isn’t limited to Barcelona, or even to Spain; this surfaces in Italy, throughout eastern Europe and Russia, and even bubbles up from time in the English game.

It would be stupid to pretend that some people aren’t racist; we’ve probably all watched football in the company of bigots. But writing off the problem as one of sporting rivalry or as simply the actions of “not proper fans” is unhelpful. Indeed, there’s no fundamental reason why you can’t be a “proper fan”, whatever that means, and be a bigot as well. Being a decent human being is not a precondition of a season ticket, and security can’t pat down your soul.

What matters is ensuring that those with bile in their hearts don’t feel able to pour it into the air. In management-speak, you need to de-incentivise racism; in normal-human speak, you need to give them a reason to keep their mouth shut, their arms out of their armpits, and their bananas in the fruitbowl. And I will happily admit that I have no idea how to do this, in Spain or anywhere else – this piece is not building up to a practical suggestion about banning orders, or stadium surveillance, or the appropriate level of fines, or how many monkey-apers it takes to close a stadium. (Try that last one, and you’ll run into the heap problem going the other way.) This is basically a long-winded “oh dear, something must be done”.

But while I don’t know what to do, I do know that it won’t get done in an atmosphere of quiescent silence. Racism, abstractly, resembles the ghosts in Mario; turn your back and it creeps up on you, evil-eyed and slavering; turn around, and it squeaks and hides its face.

What are you doing?

I’m asserting that the player with the ball, the Brazilian one, is inferior and of diminished worth both as a footballer and a human being due to the colour of his skin.

Dude, the fuck?

Or sometimes it kicks the shit out of you, which is where that analogy breaks down. Challenging people is hard – it runs against the grain at the best of times. Challenging people as part of a crowd is a risk – a gamble that the larger mass will come down on your side, not theirs. And challenging a six-foot-five skinhead with bloodshot eyes and ‘ARSEHOLE’ tattooed across the back of his neck is reckless to the point of stupidity. The other option – going to the stewards – requires a courage of its own, as well as the belief that the stewards will act, which in itself requires that the club be taking it seriously, which then needs the club to have a reason to take it seriously, which ultimately means that there must be something financial in it for them, which takes us back to the fines and the stadium bans, and then the problem of the heap and the drawing of the lines.

It would be wholly unreasonable to expect football to solve racism, since not only is racism is born and nurtured outside football, but the radical social, economic and educational reforms needed to ensure that people don’t become bigots are probably beyond even Barcelona’s reach, however much more than a club they are. At the same time, the disproportionate global focus that football enjoys means that there is a correlative responsibility of sorts, not necessarily to define what is right, but certainly to take action concerning what fundamentally isn’t. The international audience for Wednesday’s game numbered in the millions, and every one of them could have heard. This isn’t a question of being preachy, but of basic human decency. And it’s also a question of self-interest. Of image. Of brand preservation. Or at least it would be, if only it were reported.

Because whenever Marcelo picked up the ball, one of the great and sacred spaces of football was defiled by its own congregation. Not all of them, perhaps not a heap of them, but enough to constitute a problem. A problem that’s more than a little heartbreaking, and that could threaten Barcelona’s – and anybody else’s – international reputation, if only the world wasn’t twisting itself into knots over Mourinho’s latest lunatic twitching. There is no problem. There is no heap. La la la la la …

Andrew Thomas edits Twisted Blood and can be found on Twitter here.

I understand that the same may have happened during the first leg at the Bernabéu, a game that I watched on mute, with Dani Alves the target and Madrid fans responsible. If so, feel free to swap the relevant names around.

I’ve always wondered if racist creationists refused to indulge in the monkey comparisons because of the obvious evolutionary implications.

Well, not happily, obviously. Stupid figure of speech, that one.

At least one person in the world actually has this tattoo.

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Heaps of Woe

by Andrew Thomas · August 19, 2011

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