Stupid police investigation of racist language

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As I have frequently pointed out here on Language Log before, the contrast between the constitutionally protected free speech of the USA and the many legal restraints on speech in the UK is really striking. In the latest incident, a British lord posted a tweet with a photo of three Chinese toddlers dressed in watermelon-rind costumes. Two of the kids look delighted, but the one in the center is crying. To accompany the picture the noble lord tweeted a remark that I will position below the jump, because I don't want those of a nervous disposition to see it. His remark was the subject of a police investigation. The question was whether it was so racist that it should be regarded as violating the criminal law. If you think you can bear it, take a deep breath and read on.

Here is the exact wording of the allegedly racist tweet:

The kid in the middle is upset because he was told off for leaving the production line of the iPhone 5

That's all of it. That's what the police spent several days investigating for racism.

The tweeter was a successful businessman and TV personality: Lord Sugar, who is well known in Britain as the central figure in a show called Apprentice, where he tests aspirant young businesspeople to see which of them comes up to his standards and then offers the winner a high-paid job. He was making a distinctly feeble joke about Apple using toddlers on the production line to put together its smartphone products. (Note for the humor-challenged: To the best of my knowledge, toddlers are not employed in Chinese factories making Apple products.)

His jokey tweet was noticed by one Nichola Szeto, who said it was racist and she was enormously offended. Her family and her husband's family are ethnically Chinese residents of Liverpool. She complained in a message to the Merseyside police Twitter account: "I thought racism was illegal."

The police duly got in touch and asked her to make a statement on the record. She didn't, so they called her again, and this time she agreed. She turned up at a police station and took up an hour of police time giving a sworn statement.

The police investigated for several days, eventually deciding that the tweet had constituted "a hate incident", but not an actual "hate crime", so they announced that it would be kept on file but no action would be taken at this time.

I struggle to decide where to begin when listing the different ways in which such depressingly silly incidents do harm. Here are some of the first few points that occurred to me:

  1. Ms Szeto actually seems to believe that racism is illegal. It isn't, of course. Even the British are entitled to maintain and discuss their beliefs about inherent racial inferiority, or any other kind of stupid pseudo-scientific garbage.

  2. People are so ignorant about what racism actually is these days that they can mistake a satirical remark about child labor policies in the People's Republic of China for a racist taunt. Could the government not issue these people with dictionaries?
  3. The police, long the subject of richly deserved allegations of institutional racism, are now so terrified of seeming inactive on chasing down hate crimes that they don't know how to say "Don't be silly, that's an obviously absurd exaggeration aimed at satirizing child labor policies, and doesn't mention or even allude to race. Stop wasting our time."
  4. Stories like this bring into disrepute not only the validity of hate crime legislation (which is supposed to be targeting things like violent and threatening verbal attacks on black and Asian UK residents, not labor legislation jokes about the UK's industrial rivals), but the whole idea that racism should be discouraged.

The Daily Mail, probably the most disgusting of Britain's trashier newspapers — famous for indulging the tastes of racists, sexists, xenophobes, and the poor — absolutely loved this incident, printing virtually the whole story in its headline ("Lord Sugar faced police racism probe after joking on Twitter that crying Chinese boy was upset 'because he was told off for leaving the production line of the iPhone 5'"), together with a picture of Lord Sugar, and a picture of Nichola Szeto looking glamorous and coquettish, and a screen shot of the tweet with the photo of the Chinese babies, and a quote from the chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance to the effect that "officers should not waste their time chasing every ill-thought-out tweet."

All in all, a case study on how well-meaning legislation against racially-targeted threatening behavior has ended up encouraging absurd complaints from ethnic minorities and tarnishing the very important idea that on moral grounds we should resist and oppose racism.

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