Ambiguous Yids: The problem with speech bans

David Cameron has gotten himself onto the front page of the commuter newspaper Metro by commenting on the bizarre controversy over the use of the word “Yids” in English football.

Tottenham fans often chant the word, referring to themselves as “Yiddos” or “the Yid Army”. Some say it is a defensive gesture, to deflect abuse from opposition fans.
But the FA, backed by Jewish leaders, say it has no place in football and want it stopped.

The prime minister’s solomonic opinion is that the use of the word should be prosecuted only when it is used as an insult, not when people are applying it to themselves. The article quotes one Jewish supporter of a different team who says the word should be banned: “Yid is a race-hate word. It was daubed across the East End by Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts.” And a Jewish Tottenham supporter who says “This is part of our identity. As a Jewish person, I always find it empowering. We have turned this word into a positive.”

(I recall that when I lived in the Netherlands in the 1990s there was a similar controversy around the AFC Ajax football team in Amsterdam, that had the nickname de Joden, and whose rivals would taunt the fans with antisemitic chants like “Hamas, Hamas, de joden aan het gas” (“Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas”). According to this Wikipedia article, supporters of Ajax would sometimes wave Star of David flags, and at one point Hava Nagila could be downloaded as a ringtone from the club’s official website.)

Maybe Cameron should have gone the extra step, to realise that trying to come up with a sensible set of criteria for banning speech based on its content is a fool’s errand. There’s no way to deal with all the shades of meaning, when one person hurls an insult, the victim appropriates the insult as a badge of honour (as has happened with gay, queer, Black, Quaker, and impressionist), and someone else comments on the verbiage ironically.

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