For all the prevarication, equivocation and weak willed search for “nuance” amid this year’s World Cup in Qatar, Roy Keane’s intervention on ITV this Tuesday was more notable than anyone else’s.
While pundits consider the ethical quandary facing the players, or try to make the case for the beautiful game no matter where it is being played, Keane’s case was unassailable.
“The World Cup shouldn’t be here,” he said, several times. “It shouldn’t be in Qatar because of the treatment of migrant workers and gay people, because of the nation’s flippant disregard of human rights, because of the broad brush corruption at the top of the sport.”
Keane did not overinterpret the situation, putting it in light of so-called important “context”, neither did he pretend the moral framework was actually more tricky than it is. No, of course, the World Cup should not be in Qatar. And yes, the England team was meek in its refusal to wear the OneLove armband (an already meek symbol of solidarity). And no, it isn’t more complex than that.
It is not just what was said, but who said it, that made the intervention carry weight. He is a man once praised by Piers Morgan — Piers Morgan! — as “a woke virtue-signalling snowflake’s nightmare”. But Keane’s stand was powerful precisely because it was unpredictable.
There is a lesson here for activists. Sometimes good ideas and moral clarity come from unexpected places. The current demand in political activism for total purity is harming the cause. It is an environment that says to be a worthy critic of injustice you must display a whole raft of beliefs that conform with fellow activists.
How can an ex-footballer who does not have a history of calling out abuse of migrant workers be the source of the most clear-sighted and unequivocal statement of all?
But when total purity is demanded over all else, powerful interventions get cast aside as irrelevant, or not quite righteous enough. And it leads us to ask limiting and ridiculous questions: how can you be left wing and socially conservative? How can you be an American Republican with liberal social attitudes? How can an ex-footballer who does not have a history of calling out abuse of migrant workers be the source of the most clear-sighted and unequivocal statement of all?
How dare anyone’s views not fall into rigid cookie-cutter shapes as decided from above?
This goes far beyond Keane. We have a hard time wrapping our heads around the fact that worthy arguments come from surprising places. We have a harder time accepting that is a good thing.
When people break ranks and go beyond what is expected of them ears prick up and minds are changed. There is a reason why those who have made a habit of throwing soup over paintings are wasting their dwindling capital — it is boring and exactly what we assume these groups are going to do. Lobbying Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos to deface a Vermeer with a can of baked beans would be a far more effective route to change.
We might be reminded of the former head of the British Eurosceptic European Research Group, Steve Baker. The once self-described “hard man” of Brexit recently apologised for the lack of respect shown to Ireland’s “legitimate interests” during the Conservative party’s attempt to leave the European Union. “I was one who perhaps acted with the most ferocious determination to get the UK out of EU,” he said. “But we have to bring some humility to the situation.”
Was the man who joked that we would bulldoze parliament over the backstop really saying he thought Ireland had been mistreated? Such a statement would be politely acknowledged had it come from any of those softer on the Irish during the process. But the source of the apology is why it turned heads.
The whole pursuit has fallen victim to the power of conformity and is overtaken by zealous demands for purity. It should be resisted: great things often come from unlikely places
That Baker can break rank with peers and say something so obvious — but perhaps still taboo — shows again that the value of surprise cannot be overstated. We saw it when former DUP leader Peter Robinson said in 2018 that unionists should prepare for a united Ireland. It angered all the usual suspects but as an intervention, it carried more weight than if Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald had said the same thing.
All of this is exactly why England international footballer Marcus Rashford’s first foray into activism during the pandemic was so meaningful. His campaign for children to continue receiving free school meals during the holidays was historic and triumphant. But who would have thought a young footballer — a Manchester United forward, no less — could be so conscious of the world around him? Aren’t young footballers supposed to represent the acme of arrogance? Bucking that stereotype — unfair though it might be — gave his campaign added heft.
The independent mind has a surprisingly — and detrimentally — small place in the world of activism. In fact, the whole pursuit has fallen victim to the power of conformity and is overtaken by zealous demands for purity. It should be resisted: great things often come from unlikely places.