Context Lost In A Storm: On The PFA Awards Controversy
Jon Keen writes for the Reading FC fan-site The Tilehurst End and for ESPNFC.com – on Sunday he was at the Professional Footballers Association annual awards ceremony that has kicked off yet another storm in the press today. Here are his thoughts on it all.
There is something unsurprising and highly amusing about seeing the sudden furore that has kicked off over American comedian Reginald D Hunter’s comedy routine at the PFA Awards dinner on Sunday. A classic British press witch-hunt has ensued, with Hunter being criticised for his routine which used the N-word a number of times, and faux-outrage being thrown at him from all directions. And, in response to press criticism, PFA Chairman Clarke Carlisle has admitted it was a “huge mistake” to book Hunter, amid reports that the PFA is demanding the return of Hunter’s fee for the evening. What’s been most curious of all to me, however, is to see the comments about this from all those people who’ve heard or read about this routine and are piling into the debate on hearsay alone. Because I was actually there and heard the routine, I may even be able to comment upon it with a little more authority than many that have making such a noise about it today.
But first, it’s probably sensible to make a little disclaimer, because I know how sensitive some people get about anything that touches upon the subject of racism. So, to clarify, everything contained in this blog-piece is my own – my own views, my own opinions and my own observations. I don’t pretend to be speaking for any other person or any other organisation whatsoever – and that includes the organisation I was representing at the PFA Awards Dinner. But onto the routine… yes, Reginald D Hunter did use the N-word a fair few times in the routine, and yes, there was a joke which depended for its humour on an old Jewish stereotype. This, however, is a very clever comedian, and one who uses the N-word is a very complex way, referencing those who use it as a racist insult and turning the word against them. With Hunter, using the word is much more than either a reclaiming or an insult – it’s much more subtle and sophisticated than that. And I personally have no problem whatsoever in seeing the N-word used as a weapon against racists, using humour to expose their shallowness and lack of intelligence. And that’s was exactly the context of Hunter’s act on Sunday – nothing gratuitous, nothing designed to exploit cheap shock-tactics, or nothing offensive. Just a clever, witty comedian using humour to challenge his audience.
He didn’t actually succeed in challenging many of them, though – but that’s much more down to the nature of the audience than the performer and his performance. This was my sixth PFA Award Dinner, and at every single one the comedian has had a hard, hard, time – with most dying on their feet. This, after all, isn’t an audience that will give anything back to a comedian. Many are so self-absorbed – and in some respects so ill-mannered– that paying attention to what’s happening on the stage is beneath them. So on most tables conversations are carried on regardless, oblivious to the entertainment in front of them. It should probably come as no surprise to anyone that a fair percentage of today’s footballers tend to be rude, boorish and self-obsessed, and perhaps this is comedian trying to hold their attention at an event like this is so handsomely rewarded. These essentially corporate events might be the hardest gigs in for established comedians, and it was no different on Sunday night – Hunter was getting few laughs, and was clearly switching subjects to try and find something his audience would laugh at – but sadly the majority just weren’t listening. Hunter’s closing remarks of “I’ve tried to be funny but I’ve ended up being interesting” offered a window to his feelings on the lack of reaction he received.
If I’m being honest, though, I was more offended by the disdain the majority of the audience paid to Hunter than by anything in his act, and I certainly didn’t see anyone visibly offended or shocked in any way whatsoever – and I’m sure that would have been very noticeable through the general air of indifference. So I was amazed to see how this has all kicked off since, and my view is that it’s pretty much a complete storm in a teacup. I’ve been to a fair few comedy clubs and comedy gigs in my time, and in any of them Hunter’s act would have gone completely unremarked upon. Because that’s what it was, a comedy act – which included a racist term to mock the small-mindedness of racists. Because it was only after the event that the criticism started kicking off, with all sorts of righteous indignation from people who’d not been there or heard the routine (as far as I know it wasn’t recorded and certainly wasn’t broadcast) but who had read about it in the papers or on Twitter.
It seems to me that a couple of journalists, presumably ones who were there- presumably looking for an excuse to be outraged in the wake of the Suarez affair – tweeted something to the effect of “Scandal! Hunter used the N-word to a bunch of footballers!” and everything spiralled from there. What they neglected to report was the context and the way it was used – on the premise that the mere use of the N-word alone is unacceptable. I can’t subscribe to that simplistic, knee-jerk view – if we ban a single word per se and regardless of context then we’re in a very sad place. And why haven’t we banned “Oliver’s Army” by Elvis Costello & The Attractions or “Power of the Darkness“ by the Tom Robinson Band? They both use the N-word to make a point against racism and prejudice. These examples, along with many others could be considered reasonable, to prove a point. But if no-one is really listening enough to hear the point, as has been both last night and today, most semblance of the context of Hunter’s performance last night can now be considered lost in a wholly predictable storm.
The bottom line, however, is that this whole mess has erupted because a couple of journalists reacted to the use of a single word – without taking into account any context or what the comedian was saying through the use of that word. But the whole thing, with the implication that Hunter’s or his act is somehow racist or offensive because of the words he uses is patently ludicrous – it’s lazy, simplistic and scare-mongering journalism at its best. But then again, is anyone particular surprised by that? So I’m not going to join those condemning the PFA for booking Hunter for this event – except to say that I don’t know why they persist in booking a comedian at all when the majority of their members at the event are highly unlikely to be bothered to show much interest in whoever the poor performer is. Indifference is quite different to offence, and I saw or heard nothing of the latter last night. The PFA should have known what they were getting, and they got what they should have expected – a witty, intelligent comedian who uses provocative language to make effective points and to challenge his audience. And if a couple of journalists hadn’t picked on the use of a single word and manufactured a story from it no-one would have ever heard about it. As for me, when it comes to the fight against racism, I’ll take a witty and clever Black American comedian using humour to challenge attitudes and to mock racism ahead of journalists publishing “Look at this – aren’t you outraged?” stories any day of the week.
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