In recent weeks, Donald Sterling (owner of the LA Clippers), Jeremy Clarkson (BBC presenter) and Richard Scudamore (Chief Executive of the Premier League) have found themselves having to defend unsavoury comments made during private communications. Apologists for these three men have taken quickly to radio, television and social media to support the accused, arguing simply: the overtly racist and sexist comments, made by each man, happened in private and were not intended for public consumption. For some then the argument must stop here. Supposedly, there’s no need for any further inquiry or analysis. The social context of the utterances renders them inconsequential. By the logic of this argument it is unimportant Sterling is troubled by his girlfriend “associating with black people”, that Clarkson saw fit to subject his co-workers to the ‘n’ word or that Scudamore, self-proclaimed activist in the “whole equality agenda”, thought it acceptable to ridicule “female irrationality” and crudely objectify women. No. For some, such as Bill Maher (in defence of Sterling), host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, and Michael Gove, Conservative MP (in defence of Clarkson), it would seem that if there is any debate to be had it is about the sanctity of private space. But it is hardly surprising that powerful, wealthy, white men have moved quickly to defend Sterling, Clarkson and Scudamore’s right to privacy if these three men are representative of how powerful, wealthy, white men talk to one another.
As with all popular scandals of this nature, whereby well-known figures are exposed as mere mortals, like the rest of us non-mainstream media dwelling creatures, there is an obligatory PR offensive, concerned with damage limitation, spear-headed by an official apology. For instance, Scudamore’s apology reads:
“[The emails] were received and sent from my private and confidential email, which a temporary employee who was with the organisation for only a matter of weeks should not have accessed and was under no instruction to do so”
Sterling and Clarkson, too, made similar pleas asking the public to understand that their utterances were never meant to be heard outside of a private setting. Interestingly, Scudamore’s response, in particular, reads as much as a defence as an apology. Clearly, he conveys in part that it is he who has been wronged in the wake of his private thoughts coming to light. His explanation asks readers to sympathise: he is a victim in this affair given that his private space has been breached by a third-party. Indeed, while this may be so a willingness to trivialise the significance of these recent revelations should be met with suspicion.
Sterling, Clarkson and Scudamore are certainly not the first high-profile individuals to be caught-out. From ex-football manager and pundit, Ron Atkinson – who was recorded, off-air, racially abusing Marcel Desailly – to anti-racism campaigner, Paul Elliot – who resigned after using derogatory language whilst speaking with a friend – uncouth exchanges had in confidence are forever surfacing for all to see and hear. Given the regularity of these types of incidents therefore I take issue with those who seek to downplay the actions and utterances of those men in authority who have been caught in a less than favourable light. That is because implicit within apologists’ pleas for leniency, is a request to accept that an expression of prejudice is somehow less meaningful because of the social context. That because these crude and discriminatory attitudes originate in private space, it would be wrong to suggest that these men fight (and frequently or very occasionally fail) to supress similar exclamations in everyday, professional and public realms. This is not to suggest, nor indeed is it to deny, these men are concealing deliberately blatant and repugnant social attitudes. However, given these men, in the most unambiguous of ways, have been recorded articulating such explicitly offensive language/ attitudes, is it beyond the realms of possibility that sexist and/ or racist tropes inform subtly their world-views, subconsciously or otherwise?
I also take issue with commentaries critical of the three men that have failed to address sufficiently what these private outbursts reveal about the nature of contemporary racisms and sexisms. That is, the language used by each man should not serve as yet another prompt to deliberate the nuances of wealthy men’s right to privacy or, indeed, whether they should be labelled racist or sexist or not. To proceed along these trajectories is to overlook something entirely more significant. My most pressing concern then is to flag these private utterances as symptoms of a cultural imperative, impelled by liberal social attitudes, which encourage people to shift bigoted and uncensored perceptions of women and racialised Others ‘underground’. In other words, racist/ sexist attitudes have certainly not disappeared from the human condition; quite conversely, they remain operative, languishing in secluded and secretive arenas, away from scrutiny, loitering unchallenged. Therefore, what was said by Sterling, Clarkson and Scudamore, in private, away from the glare of the media spotlight, offers us – not necessarily insight into whether these men are, in the words of Les Back, “fully paid up card carrying Nazi[s]” but – momentary access into the social worlds powerful men inhibit and a fleeting glimpse at the types of conversations they perceive as normal, away from fear of reprisal. Far from being inconsequential, private speech therefore reminds those interested in matters of equality that the fight is eternally ongoing.
Now, undoubtedly, driving racism and sexism ‘underground’ has some positive outcomes. For instance, throwing a banana at a black football player, today, as was common in the 1970s and 1980s, would be considered acceptable behaviour by very few British people. This is perfectly in line with modern ‘no racism or sexism in public, please’ discourses. However, sadly, this does not mean ‘jokes’ about black people and bananas have disappeared entirely from private space. We should therefore be careful not to overstate the positive outcomes that liberal policies have produced over the last thirty years, especially those that shift prejudice elsewhere, and seek to understand discrimination in new ways. In short, a reduction in abhorrent overt racist or sexist behaviour and/ or language in public should not be taken as evidence of absolute social improvement. Private space, and the goings on within, can indeed tell us much about the extent to which attitudes have changed and just how many, and what kind of, inroads have been made in the fight for racial and gender equality.