David Cameron has said it's OK for Tottenham fans to chant "yiddo" and "yid army". When asked by the Jewish Chronicle if Spurs fans who use the word should be prosecuted, he said: "You have to think of the mens rea. There’s a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Yids and someone calling someone a Yid as an insult. You have to be motivated by hate. Hate speech should be prosecuted — but only when it’s motivated by hate."
This has led to David Baddiel and others pointing out that the word is as offensive as "nigger" or "paki", and its use in this way should not be tolerated. It's also the case that many Spurs fans have come to think that the adoption of the term, in ostensible defiance of others with an antisemitic agenda, has been counter-productive. On the other hand, some Jewish Spurs fans claim to be happy with the use of the word. Even the Daily Telegraph is conflicted, expressing doubts while a poll of its readers (presumably mostly gentile) showed a majority supportive of Cameron's stance.
The PM's lapse into lawyerly Latin in a philological debate is amusing in itself, but he is making an important distinction. Mens rea means a wrongful mind, in the sense that a person has an evil intention. For a crime to be committed, the accused must be shown to have both a mens rea and to have carried out an actus reus, a wrongful act. If you accidentally kill someone, you are not guilty of murder. Cameron is tacitly accepting that chanting "yid" is prima facie (this Latin is catching) an actus reus, i.e. illegal, but that if a Spurs fan appropriates the term as a badge of honour, there is no mens rea (no "hate" in his formulation) and thus no actual crime.
This type of thinking is hardly novel given the decades-long debate over whether it's OK for black people to use the term "nigga", on which it's fair to say the jury is still out. As the recent documentary on the jobs and freedom march on Washington of 1963, which featured Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech, reminded us, it was a novel and radical act for John Lewis, one of the other speakers, to eschew the word "negro" and use the term "black". Words are mutable yet never fully drop their historic freight.
Cameron is right that the value of the word is a matter of context, but he is wrong to think it's solely about intention. Language is a social construct, which means that words mean what we agree they mean, not what any one individual decides. The joke in Alice Through the Looking Glass was not Humpty Dumpty's positivist worldview but his egomania.
Because society is dynamic, and constituted of many overlapping subcultures, language can have multiple, simultaneous meanings, which is an affront to those who would rather society wasn't dynamic. The constant struggle to control language is manifested in the trope that treats words as a type of property, whose ownership (and thus the right of interpretation, i.e. exploitation) can be prescribed by law and convention. This originates in the twofold movement, starting in the 17th century, that equated language with nationhood and territory, and simultaneously sought standardisation and conformity within the language. These trends were both facilitators of, and responses to, the evolution of mercantile and industrial capitalism.
This is why we use property-related terms, like "appropriate" or "reclaim", when we refer to one group changing or inverting the meaning of a word, such as Spurs fans adopting "yid" as an assertive identity. There is the sense, on the part of those who regret this mutability, of "rights" being trampled on and "liberties" being taken. When words (such as "yid" itself) jump between languages, we even talk of them being "borrowed" or "loaned", as if there is an expectation that one day they'll be given back, that property will be restored to its rightful owner. Who knows, perhaps the Romans will reappear to reclaim mens rea.
The reason why it is regrettable that Spurs fans use the term "yid" is because the vast majority of them (95%, according to Baddiel) aren't Jewish, so this carries no more personal consequentiality than a white lad from Aberdeen with a taste for Rap calling his mates "niggas" (innit, blud). In fact, Tottenham aren't an unusually Jewish club, despite the claims made about their "heritage". This is a relatively recent invention (and lazy received wisdom today), dating from the 70s and 80s when the NF/BNP strategy of converting terrace crews into "streetfighters" gave Chelsea and West Ham fans a new trope for their hate. If you're going to start sieg-heiling on The Shed and singing songs about Auschwitz, characterising Spurs as the exceptional Jewish club is a no-brainer.
Ironically, this occurred at the tail-end of the historic migration of Jews out of the East End, with the decline of the garment and furniture trades, to places like Brentwood and Harlow, which gradually reduced their proportion in the crowd at White Hart Lane. Today, Arsenal are the most widely-supported club among London's Jews (the recent change in Chief Rabbi saw an Arsenal fan replaced by a Spurs fan), which hasn't stopped some Gooners routinely chanting "yiddo" at ex-Spurs players, even when Yossi Benayoun was in our team. Outside of London, Man City and Leeds both have strong Jewish support, but don't feel the need to make a totem of it. The "reclamation" of the term by Tottenham fans is not an "I am Spartacus" moment, showing solidarity with Jews against antisemitism, but an example of the ironic strain of terrace humour, with the added frisson of lines being crossed, not unlike Baddiel and Skinner's baiting of Jason Lee on Fantasy Football in the 90s.
Back in the 80s, there possibly was a moment when the adoption of the term by Spurs fans might have had some value as resistance to the knuckleheads at Stamford Bridge and the Boleyn Ground, but that moment has long since passed. If Jewish Spurs fans gleefully used the term today, it would be a different matter, but they (generally) don't. It's pretty obvious that the persistence of the "yid" vocabulary, when other offensive language has declined in grounds, is in part due to the continued use of it by non-Jewish Spurs fans. If they stopped, we could more easily isolate and deprecate its use elsewhere. Like a loan deal gone wrong, leaving a disaffected player in limbo, it would be best to cut your losses and move on.
Cameron's nuance is not an example of wishy-washy relativism (though you could have fun quizzing him about the mens rea of muslim women wearing veils), but an assertion of property rights. He is channelling classic conservatism, both the Burkean notion that the little platoons should be left to their own devices and the reactionary resistance to words such as "queer" being appropriated and retooled. It's about ownership and his view that gentile Spurs fans have at least as much right to the word as the various Jewish community bodies that have abhorred its use. "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - - that's all."