When George Orwell wrote perhaps his best-known book, 1984 was still thirty-five years in the future and thoughtcrime merely a dramatic device to highlight the prospective horrors of a society which would punish for what you thought as quickly as for what you did. Now 1984 is thirty years in the past, and thoughtcrime surely still just a literary concept.
Or is it? Take the example of Malky Mackay, former manager of Cardiff City Football Club and would-be boss at Crystal Palace until certain old text messages between him and a colleague came to light last month. Mackay denies being racist, homophobic or sexist, all inferences which could readily be drawn from the wording of the texts in question. He agrees fully that they should not have been sent (well, doh!) but offers two forms of mitigation – first, that there were only a handful of them sent among 10,000 texts over a number of years, and second that he was at the time “under immense pressure and stress in terms of the relationships that were not going too well at my football club at the time”.
Letting off steam privately to a friend, I get. Stress-induced rudeness, I absolutely get (an occupational hazard). But stress-induced homophobia or racism, I do not. What that would imply is not that the maker of such a comment did not hold those views but instead that for the vast majority of the time he or she could control or suppress them so that they did not become evident to third parties. Nonetheless, those views must surely be in there in some form or other for phrases like “gay snake”, “fkn chinkys” and “bounce on her falsies” to be what floats to the surface when the pressure is on.
So this is a recurrence of the old question – are those howling for Mackay’s head really doing so because of a tiny handful of inappropriate texts, or because of what those texts could be argued to say about the conscious or unconscious attitudes beneath them? Put differently, can we accept that unquestionably discriminatory and offensive texts would be sent without the driver of some underlying bias? This is not a given: bear in mind that there was no suggestion at any time during Mackay’s troubled reign at Cardiff that any of his decisions or statements were in any way tainted by discrimination. If it is right, however, are we not then perilously close to Orwell’s thoughtcrime? – you are judged not by what you do, not by the quality of your work or your relationships with your colleagues, but by some inner, potentially even unconscious, bias.
No one would condone those messages, but it could equally be said that this is a dangerous path. I am sure that there is no one with any real experience of his fellow man who does not think uncharitably from time to time about certain sections of the community, whether in response to an unhappy personal encounter or something seen on the news. Those biases may be innate and fixed or may shift from time to time, but deep down, possibly even unknowingly, we all have them. Assorted worthy commentators and the Mail Online have claimed that the Mackay incident shows professional football still to be rotten to the core, etc. While that makes good copy, though, I wonder which of them could genuinely and honestly claim to be exceptions to my assertion above. Let he who casts the first stone, etc. Perhaps the inevitable reality is simply this – you can go about your work thinking what thoughts you will, as bigoted, bonkers, prurient or ignorant as can be conceived, and no one can touch you for it until you are foolish, careless or naïve enough to commit it to writing, say it to an audience or join UKIP. http://www.employmentlawworldview.com/weather-man-causes-storm-through-religious-views-prospects-unsettled-heading-south-decreasing/ and http://www.employmentlawworldview.com/words-fail-me-im-a-manager/.
It is therefore hard at one level to believe Mackay’s denials entirely but there is a valid and meaningful distinction between “I have not a discriminatory atom in my body” (which at some level will be true of almost nobody) and “I have never let my private views on [race/sex/religion, etc.] interfere with the way I treat others or the decisions I have sought to make in my employer’s best interests”, which it appears so far that he could say entirely legitimately.