What's worse: kicking a cat or racism?

14 February 2022

7:00 PM

14 February 2022

7:00 PM

The best football teams are adept at turning defence into attack. After a video of centre back Kurt Zouma practising his distribution with a pet cat led to calls for his prosecution, teammate Michael Antonio responded to the press with a question of his own: ‘Do you think what he’s done is worse than racism?’

While we could dismiss this as a fairly blatant piece of whataboutery, it’s also quite an interesting question. The response you’d probably get by asking people is ‘no, obviously not’. The response you’d get from their revealed preferences is that this is a country that donates £43 million annually to The Donkey Sanctuary.

If you were to learn about Britain’s moral hierarchy by watching public behaviour, you’d end up with the general impression that cruelty towards animals ranks slightly above murder, arson, and fraudulent parliamentary expenses in the list of issues likely to ignite the fury of the public. Even Adolf Hitler had the decency to be a vegetarian.

For all that the British — and the English in particular — like to see ourselves as reserved and composed, we are wildly sentimental. From the continuing and baffling relevance of the Cult of Diana to the insistence that Boris Johnson be made to answer to parliament for failing to make a phone call with Vladimir Putin, an excessive indulgence in emotion is a core part of our national life.

We can’t blame it on millennials, either. C.S. Lewis — in his guise as the wily demon Screwtape — declared that the British were ‘the most deplorable milksops… creatures of that miserable sort who loudly proclaim that torture is too good for their enemies and then give tea and cigarettes to the first wounded German pilot who turns up at the back door[‘. Swinging wildly between thunderous denunciation and affable behaviour is emblematic of indulging in a good bout of emotion before getting back on with things.

Sometimes, evidently, this is good. And at other times we let this sentimentality run unchecked and crowdfund £36,000 because a girl cried on TV at the Euros. If aliens were to come to earth looking for intelligent life, it’s about 50-50 whether the British would qualify on any given day.

At its worst, Britain’s sentimental streak causes us to behave in deeply stupid and harmful ways. Nothing I’ve written has caused nearly as much controversy as suggesting that evacuating pets from Kabul was not the best use of limited capacity. And very little will get you in more hot water than suggesting our beloved NHS performing well on metrics other than ‘do the patients die’ might mean it isn’t the world’s finest health system after all.

So to come back to the original question: yes, it is very plausible that kicking a cat will do more to damage your reputation in Britain than racism, queue-cutting, conspiring with the USSR to overthrow Her Majesty’s government, or really anything else short of being filmed singing the Panzerlied at a lockdown party draped in an Isis flag while throwing darts at a picture of Winston Churchill.

This isn’t because Britain is deeply racist. The saga following the Euros proved this: the ‘racist’ graffiti on the Rashford mural turned out not to be, and the torrent of messages became a trickle largely originating overseas. The overwhelming response — from billboards to murals to prime ministerial statements — was sympathy and support.

If, as Rachel Johnson says, we’re ‘in danger of cancelling Kurt Zouma for one misguided kick in his kitchen’, and if the public seems more willing to turn out with pitchforks for Zouma than they were for Luis Suarez’s alleged racism, it’s not because they don’t care about the latter: they just like pets more than people.

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