Conor McGregor has used rhetoric with racist undertones on stage this week against Floyd Mayweather, and it's extremely important to point that out.
During the first event in Los Angeles, McGregor told Mayweather to "dance for me boy", and the following night in Toronto, told him to "do what you're told".
These comments directly invoke a master/slave paradigm at an event which McGregor is trying to establish primacy over his opponent - if he is going to sell the fight, he needs to talk the public around to the idea that he is capable of knocking Floyd Mayweather out.
This is nothing new. McGregor has strayed onto similarly dodgy ground in the build-up to previous fights. Ahead of a 2014 fight with German Dennis Siver, he tweeted a photo of he and Siver with the caption "Kiss them feet Nazi". A reprimand from the UFC followed, which led to the deleting of the original tweet and an unconvincing apology: "Ich bin ein sowwy. Now about them feet...".
The worldwide press tour ahead of Jose Aldo proved to be a nadir in public discourse. In Rio de Janeiro, McGregor bloviated:
I own this town, I own Rio de Janeiro. I would invade his favela on horseback and would kill anyone who wasn’t fit to work, but we’re in a new time, so I’ll whoop his ass instead.
On Facebook, McGregor vowed to "behead the 'American Gringo' Rafael Dos Anjos, in the name of La Brasilia".
McGregor hasn't been forced to confront these insults very often. That's beginning to change now, as the issue has been raised across myriad American outlets, including ESPN's Pardon the Interruption. At last night's irredeemably sordid circus, McGregor responded to those who flagged the use of racist imagery against Mayweather. It was pitiful.
All of the media seem to be saying that I am against black people. That's absolutely fucking ridiculous. But do they not know that I am half black? Yeeaaaahhh. I’m half-black from the bellybutton down.
That's so ineffably stupid, demeaning and infantile, it is worth immediately disregarding. McGregor was asked to clarify what he meant by the above in a press conference after the press conference, and he was slightly more coherent.
That doesn't sit well with me. I'm very multicultural, I'm a multicultural individual. I don't have any ill-feelings toward anyone, I don't even see colour. I just wanted to say something and have some fun with it...I just wanted to play with it and address it in my own little way. It's stupid and it's ridiculous, is basically what I was getting at.
— Brian Campbell (@BCampbellCBS) July 14, 2017
McGregor's defence is that these were all said in "showbiz" mode, and that's how to address them: through comic exaggeration of an absurdity intended to accentuate the fact that the original comments were made in the same context.
Thus the defence of McGregor is inevitably going to come down to a dissonance between his actual character and the affectations he puts on before the crowd, for showbiz.
There are problems with that, however: one specific to McGregor, and a wider issue. McGregor cannot claim to be a kind of post-racial man who doesn't "even see colour" if he markets himself as the fighting Irishman, following in the footsteps of his oppressed ancestry. History can't be a zero-sum game; McGregor can't identify to be honoring one set of oppressed people and then ignore another, separate oppressor.
He said exactly that specifically in a curious Facebook post in 2015. Mayweather had used the wider treatment of McGregor as indicative of racism: "They say he talk a lot of trash and people praise him for it, but when I did it, they say I’m cocky and arrogant. So biased".
McGregor took this as a direct insult, and warned Mayweather not to attribute his success to race. In the next sentence, McGregor invoked his race as being important in his success.
Floyd Mayweather, don't ever bring race into my success again. I am an Irishman. My people have been oppressed our entire existence. And still very much are. I understand the feeling of prejudice. It is a feeling that is deep in my blood.
In my family's long history of warfare there was a time where just having the name 'McGregor' was punishable by death.
Do not ever put me in a bracket like this again.
If you want we can organise a fight no problem.
This was posted in the second week of 2016, when the posturing was underway in order to get the fight on.
The wider point is that McGregor doesn't really mean what he says, that it's all just "trash-talk" and showbiz, to shift a few thousand PPV sales. But that doesn't really matter. McGregor might not actually mean any of this deep down, but the fact that the words are allowed to exist unchallenged under the aegis of "that's showbiz, baby" is extremely damaging.
At some stage, words have to actually mean something, and allowing this kind of rhetoric - with all of its historical, pernicious connotations - to breathe on high-profile TV is toxic, and merely encourages those who believe it.
The last eighteen months have proven society's folly of ignoring the power of words and imagery, and flippantly dismissing them within the context of those saying it: the British economy has self-immolated because of a cabal of careerist politicians grabbing for power and leverage within their party being allowed to casually throw out anti-immigrant rhetoric, under the assumption that it all really didn't matter.
The United States is currently dealing with the legacy of tacitly permitting abhorrent and misogynistic insults to be neatly brushed away under the title of "locker-room talk". And the wider world is still equivocating over sexist, racist, misogynistic and classist bile by putting them under the great euphemism, B****r.
McGregor will maintain that he doesn't actually believe any of this stuff, and perhaps he doesn't. But it doesn't really matter: the power of these words amid their historical context is so powerful and divisive that it shouldn't be tolerated.
It is exceptionally irresponsible to loose these racist terms in public, regardless of a delineation between reality and machismo marketing. Why does "selling a fight" give McGregor immunity from criticism for behaviour society long ago stopped accepting? These words and terms, with all they evoke, have a corrosive and ruinous impact on society by themselves.
A belief in the power of words is why it's important to point out McGregor's use of these terms, and to ask for a full, earnest apology: for those would be powerful words, too.