In what’s minty fresh news, Liverpool striker Suarez was given an 8-match ban for racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra. You may read about it here. Santosh Ananthakrishnan sent me the link to a discussion about the same on WebDiplomacy Forums.
A lot of the news reports are too annoyingly prudish to tell what the hell it was that Suarez called Evra, circumventing it by saying stuff like ‘used words that included a reference to Mr Evra’s colour’. I am reminded of when I was in primary school. Every once in a while, silly little girls would rush to the class teacher, their pigtails askew and their eyes glistening with tears, and would say “Ma’am, he is using foul laaaaan-uage. He said bad words.” The teacher would naturally ask, “What did he say?”, knowing that silly little girls’ threshold for what constitutes foul language can be deceptively low. This is when they would become uncooperative, and keep repeating—”Ma’am, very bad words!“—because society hasn’t yet understood the fundamental distinction between the use and the mention of a linguistic expression. And the teacher would dismiss the whole case on grounds of insufficient evidence.
I am a football n00b, and reading news reports about this incident has been an ordeal due to a bevy of unfamiliar names and abbreviations, but from what I have understood so far, the defence is that whatever Suarez called Evra, negro or negrito, is actually a playful and casual term where Suarez comes from. I don’t see how it being slightly less offensive in Spanish exculpates someone for using it with others.
Of course, I am not saying that any sequence of sounds in my language that sounds offensive in some other language should be held against me. For instance, the French term salle à manger, meaning dining hall, sounds roughly like saala-mon-jay, but that doesn’t mean Hindi speakers should get offended on listening to it just because _saala_ in Hindi happens to be offensive. And when a Chinese guy talks about the famous Mid Autumn Festival (中秋節, or Zhōngqiū jié), which sounds to Hindi ears as chong-choo-tiye, you should certainly not pull him up for rudeness. But this case is nothing of that sort. We aren’t even talking about some subtle cultural difference here. Negro does mean black even in Spanish, and while it is possible that it is used more sparingly (and with less taboo) in Spanish, the truth remains that anyone with some amount of sense would stay away from it except in informal, friendly situations. And a match between two fierce sporting rivals doesn’t count as one. I wouldn’t comment further on this issue, mainly because any pronunciation of blame would need knowledge of Suarez’s personal history, something that I am neither aware of nor interested in researching.
Insult, as far as I can see, is a function of the insult-er, the insult-ee, and the social protocol that exists for that particular interaction. And you are expected to be aware of the prevalent social protocol of a place. Young people usually use expletives quite liberally, often simply as intensifiers. Among peers, insult is rarely taken, because insult is rarely intended, and this is part of the social setup they are in. A lot of this use is very casual and not even literal—a college guy calling his friend _behenchod _(the Hindi equivalent of sister-fucker) is obviously not insinuating that his friend has incestual relations with his sister (heck, he may not even have a sister)—but that doesn’t make it _acceptable_ to use the term with, say, your seniors or professors. You can’t say that, back in your hostel, the term is used casually and doesn’t mean anything rude. Sorry. Doesn’t work.
I can give other examples. I grew up in North India (mostly Rajasthan). Up there, it is usually considered impolite to address people older than you or more senior to you with just their names. Young people, when talking to guys belonging to the same generation, but older or senior to them, usually address them using the term _bhaiya_ (a term that means brother), and usually add bhaiya after their name when referring to them in third-person, not unlike the way the Japanese add honorifics like –san, –kun etc. This is normal practice in schools, and often extends to colleges. Of course, this is a simplified picture, and the exact nature of the social relationship between two people might change this, but you get the general picture.
In Maharashtra, however, due to various reasons, the term bhaiya seems to have acquired slightly negative connotations, and many Maharashtrians apparently do not like to be addressed by this term. This seems to be reflected in the student culture at IIT Bombay, and I learnt within a couple of hours of being at the place that you were supposed to address everyone by just their name, and that it was perfectly socially acceptable, and you used the form aap with seniors. It was obviously slightly weird that a term that usually denotes respect (and sometimes affection too) in the culture I come from would be considered mildly insulting/annoying in my new setting, but this was a part of the adaptation all of us do all the time. For others, it may be just the opposite. It usually takes just a couple of hours or days to observe what works where (certainly not months or years), and probably some time to get used to it, of course, but such cultural adaptation is usual and we do this all the time. I find it rather unremarkable.
In general, therefore, if a person knows that a particular expression or act is unacceptable in a particular social setting, he should be held culpable for using or doing it. How much punishment it deserves, or whether it deserves any punishment at all, is a different matter. You should make allowances if they have only recently been informed about the undesirability of the act, or give them three strikes or something, so on. But saying that it doesn’t happen this way back where you come from can’t work as an excuse.