Some of them want to abuse you
April 30, 2011 § 11 Comments
Paul Wilson, writing in the Guardian, recently made the rather remarkable suggestion that “it is debatable whether [Manchester] City fans are trying to offend [Manchester] United fans with the term ‘Munichs'”, suggesting instead that the nickname derives from a desire on the part of City fans to emphasise the differences between the clubs. He cites City supporters who “say they would never chant anything unpleasant or inflammatory about Munich but see no issue with using the word itself as shorthand for United and their supporters”.
Before addressing the piece directly, it’s worth drawing a distinction. “Munichs” is a catch-all generalisation for Manchester United fans. As such, like all generalised terms of abuse, it can be used in two ways that are distinct in character and so represent a different problem. The first is a latent and generalised use; the second is a specific and targeted use.
Pick a racist epithet; any racist epithet. Now, imagine you’re the kind of person who uses this epithet as a matter of course in reference to the racial group denoted. There are two ways the word can work for you:
The first is as a general and normalised term of reference. When in conversation with other like-minded folk it is the term of choice — “there was this Welsh fucker at work”; “not bad, for a Welshman”; “bloody Welsh, coming over here, taking our jobs” — and when thinking about the Welsh, it’s in those terms. The Welsh are known as such as a matter of course and, importantly, there is no specific or distinct Welshman toward whom the term is directed.
The second is as a specific term of abuse towards a given target: “Fuck you, you Welsh bastard(s)”. I think we all know how those work.
Obviously, being called “Welsh” is less a term of great offence and more a massive compliment, but I hope the structural point is clear. Indeed, I would suggest that most racists who use “Welsh” (or whatever) as a term of general abuse would shy away from specifically abusing a given Welshman, at least without some provocation. British society, while still laced with both institutionalised and overt racism, has at least progressed to the point where racist abuse is recognised as such and is therefore kept for the most part sub rosa, at least in public.
Returning to the football, I would suggest there is a similar distinction between the actions of a City fan (or whoever) who generally refers to Manchester United fans as “Munichs”, and another City fan (or whoever) that directs the term towards a specific Manchester United fan. Use of the term in general, without a United fan to hand, isn’t intended to offend anyone in particular, and this, I think, is what Wilson is alluding to: because the use of the term as a shorthand is generally done away from United ears, and isn’t meant to offend, then it isn’t offensive.
But this makes sense only if we understand offensiveness as being entirely determined by the intention of the speaker, which doesn’t really seem tenable. In general, we conceive of certain terms as being offensive in and of themselves. Of course, for any given offence caused, the context, delivery, and specific details all play a part, but it doesn’t make sense to assert that just because an abusive term is spoken out of earshot, it loses what offensive valency it would otherwise possess. It is heartily disingenuous of the City fans Wilson refers to (who are not quoted directly and so may simply be rhetorically convenient devices) to state that they would not taunt a United fan to their face, but would happily do so behind their back. Disingenuous and cowardly.
Obviously, it is in many important ways less offensive to refer to United fans as “Munichs” in passing than it is to march up to a United fan and scream “fuck you, you Munich cunt”. But the normalisation of the term is problematic. If, as Wilson seems to be suggesting, the term is viewed by those using it as simply a handy referent without any thought to the fact that it might be offensive, then we would have to assume that the same people would have no problem referring to the residents of Christchurch as “Quakers” or the Kennedys as “splatheads”. After all, use of a nickname for a club is a deliberate act of reference, designed to re-frame the club in ulterior terms. United have a name; to use anything else is to make a point, in one way or another. If it’s ManUre, you’re going for the cheap lulz of the inadequate; if it’s Munichs, you’re going for the darker chuckles of the chronically morbid.
i) if a prick opens his mouth in a forest, and there’s nobody there to hear it, he’s still a prick;
ii) if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, but will say it behind someone’s back, then you’re a hypocrite and a coward. And still a prick;
iii) it’s not okay to pretend that referring to the supporters of a football club by a name specifically designed to evoke memories of death, devastation and despair is anything other than ignorant fuckwittery of the highest order.
The piece, being a response to a specific article, doesn’t contain the traditional nods towards generality or acknowledgement of other structurally similar terms of abuse, etc., that relate to other clubs. Frankly, it should be obvious and in any case it would get unwieldy. The point of the piece, however, is a general point, and can refer to any or all of these terms equally effectively. Feel free to mentally swap in and out as you please.
And finally, I know it’s a minority of City fans. And I’m sure some United fans do similar or worse. Very much not the point.