Tag Archives: Anti-Sectarianism

Write the Word ‘Sectarian’ Upside Down

In 1941, the Austrian Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein decided to quit academic life to be involved in war work; he took up a role as a porter in Guy’s Hospital in London, where he very quickly progressed to the role of Lab Assistant, mixing ointments for dermatology.

During his time at Guys, Wittgenstein met Dr Grant and Dr Reeve who were carrying out clinical research on ‘wound shock’. Noticing that there was no agreement on the symptoms of ‘shock’, Wittgenstein suggested that Grant and Reeve write the word upside down in their final report to emphasise its unsuitability for correct diagnosis of the injuries they were confronted with.

One of Wittgenstein’s key contributions to philosophy was his recognition that if we fail to be clear about the correct use of everyday concepts, we are in danger of making significant mistakes in understanding certain aspects of human life. The danger is quite apparent in connection with the use of psychological, sociological and political concepts, often leading us down the wrong line of enquiry where we feel compelled to propose theoretical or legal solutions to non-existent problems.

When it comes to understanding the concept of sectarianism, I think we need to pause for a moment and take stock. It is too easy to jump on the bandwagon of describing certain forms of behaviour as sectarian, followed by a public declaration of how offended we are by that behaviour. It is too easy to assume that sectarianism is the problem we have come to think it is in Scotland, when it is rarely anything of the sort.

A sect is defined as a group of people with a different set of religious beliefs to those of a larger group to which they belong; sectarian is an adjective that denotes or concerns a sect, and sectarian behaviour is therefore behaviour conducted by a person who is following the doctrines of a sect.

Seems clear enough to me and unless we are referring to a sect whose doctrines specifically call for hatred, conflict or violence towards individuals not belonging to their sect, then it is difficult to understand why sectarianism should be regarded as wrong. And in this respect, the very idea of being anti-sectarian seems a bit odd – what right do we have to oppose another person’s non harmful religious beliefs?   

The problem in Scotland is that clarity is lost at precisely this point. There was a dark period in our history during which those preaching Protestantism officially demanded discriminatory behaviour against Roman Catholics, the latter being described as a menace to society and a threat to the Scottish race. But we need to be very careful that we do not allow our thinking to be influenced by such angst ridden, contextualised interpretations of religious doctrines that are no longer recognised as valid today.  

Behaviour motivated by prejudice against another person’s religion is typically described as sectarian by politicians, journalists and the man in the street. We all agree that it is right to condemn that type of behaviour and judge it to be offensive and illegal; but in doing so, we are incorrectly describing it, unless the prejudice in question is demanded by the first person’s adherence to the doctrines of their own particular sect, which is highly unlikely.  

On the other hand, we hear people describing manifestations of religious faith as sectarian in certain contexts, usually footballing ones; we rightly judge them to be inappropriate to the situation, and although most would defend themselves by saying that there is nothing sectarian about their behaviour, and that it is simply an innocent expression of faith, our use of the term sectarian in these instances is actually more likely to be correct than its use in the former.

The use of the word sectarian in the latter case is entirely correct, even though the behaviour it is used to describe is quite innocent; the use of the word sectarian in the former case is incorrect, even though the behaviour it is used to describe is offensive and illegal. We seem to have become confused in the way we use the word sectarian in Scotland and as a result we make erroneous judgements, and start to think up equally misguided laws and solutions to deal with what we perceive to be the problem thus characterised.

Perhaps we should do well to take Wittgenstein’s advice then, and turn the word sectarian upside down to remind ourselves of its unsuitability in analysing what is going on here. Sometimes what we are confronted with is racism. Often it is just unthinking hooliganism – witness the number of individuals unable to rationalise their behaviour after the event. Sometimes it is about religion, and when it is we need to be very clear that sectarian behaviour is not wrong or unlawful in itself, and therefore need to stop talking about it as if it were. It only becomes so if the sect which legitimises its description in this manner demands hatred, violence or discrimination of others on the basis on not belonging to their particular group, and I can’t think of any doctrines within Catholicism or Protestantism that would do so in Scotland today.

Bizarrely enough, there may actually be a sense in which behaviour motivated by hatred of another individual’s religious beliefs could be described as anti-sectarian, in that it is contrary to that individual’s right to freely express and follow the good doctrines of his sect. Whilst that may be a very specific case, and require certain conditions to be in place, it illustrates how confusing this concept can be and how confused we have become in using it.

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‘Offensive Behaviour’, One Year Later

By the end of this week, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act (Scotland) 2012 will have been in force for one year:


One year on, I don’t think we are any closer to fully understanding how to apply this legislation properly. It was a hastily written piece of work, popularly referred to in the media as the ‘anti-bigotry law’, or the ‘anti-sectarian law’.

It hinges on a definition of ‘offensive’ which seems to imply that certain forms of behaviour at football matches are illegal if they cause a certain type of response in others. It has largely been about singing certain songs, or versions of these songs, that provoke an angry reaction because of their inflammatory, racist or sectarian content.

When trying to decide whether a piece of behaviour is offensive, an obvious question to ask is, ‘offensive to whom?’ and the most likely answer is, ‘to any individual belonging to a religious, social or cultural group that feels annoyed, angered, upset or intimidated by that behaviour’.

But relying on a shared emotional response as the criterion by which we judge certain displays of behaviour as offensive is tricky. It not only renders our definition too subjective, it also puts too much weight on a bundle of loosely structured emotions whose inherent volatility ought to mark them out as unreliable markers of definitional consistency in the first place.

The problem is exacerbated by the recognition that the types of emotional response in question are typically learned – but in an entirely damaging sense through involuntary exposure to a negative form of breeding from a young age and into adult life. It is from that perspective that much of what is regarded as offensive tends to be judged by the man in the street.

I think there is a general consensus among many people that the Act was introduced as a desperate measure to deal with an ugly spike in activity within the context of an embarrassing and shameful socio-cultural problem in Scotland. This ugly spike was still too raw in the public consciousness when the Bill was originally shaped, and that was a mistake.

It produced a situation in which the immediate response in some quarters to almost any form of behaviour, even loosely perceived to have a connection with a certain type of religious outlook or ethnicity, has been one of anger and outrage. The upshot is that too many different forms of behaviour have been popularly tarred with the same brush through a distortion in our understanding of what ought to count as offensive.

And from time to time it would appear that even those in positions of authority on match days have done little to prevent the view that what counts as offensive hinges on the misconception that if certain types of behaviour cause upset or anger, simply because they contain references to a particular race, religion or a political agenda, then they must be illegal.

In fairness, the Act itself does appear to recognise that being offensive isn’t simply about individuals feeling upset or angered that the group they belong to has been challenged, parodied or criticised; the key seems to be that the challenge must be made in a form that expresses or arouses hatred and is likely to lead to public disorder.

But surely expressing or arousing hatred cannot be sufficient either, when it is so easy for one group of individuals to feel hatred towards another, just because they are there and making a noise about everything that is important to them? It is all too subjective.

Clearly, there has to be more to it than that. I think it must also come down to whether belonging to a particular group has been challenged or criticised in a way that is contrary to that group’s integrity, or contrary to historical fact.

This would never constitute a definition in its own right, of course, but it would help sharpen up our understanding of what is permissible and what isn’t in a more objective context, provided we can be historically accurate in our assessment!

And whilst this would legally permit certain forms of behaviour to continue, and certain types of song to be sung at football matches, the appropriateness of doing so must nonetheless be assessed against the wishes and expectations of the club they represent – that should always be a key consideration.

It is fairly obvious to me that not every song or action that arouses anger, hatred or annoyance in ill-informed minds is in fact offensive. It is too easy to blame the wrong people here. Not everyone will think the same way about this, but perhaps it is the irrational response that ought to be criminalised in these cases, rather than the initial behaviour.

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Are Anti-Sectarian Initiatives Counter-Productive?

Congratulations to Larkhall for being the first town in Scotland to receive the ‘Champion for Change’ charter mark by Nil By Mouth, in recognition of its work to tackle sectarianism in the community.

Local schools, community groups and Church Leaders worked together to promote sporting initiatives and creative projects aimed at encouraging tolerance and understanding between different religious and faith groups.

Without wanting to detract from the very good intentions, the enormous effort and hard work involved in bringing people together through anti-sectarian initiatives like this, it is worth sounding a quick note of caution.

A curious thing about the very idea of anti-sectarian initiatives is that, apart from the fact that many of us seem to lack agreement with regards to what ‘sectarian’ actually means, potentially diluting their effectiveness, such initiatives could also have the unintended effect of reinforcing existing divisions in our thinking.

This is what I mean: anti-sectarian initiatives are designed to educate us towards a better understanding of other people’s differences, typically in respect of certain ‘protected characteristics’ as referred to within the UK Equality Act 2010, such as religious and theological beliefs.

But the very act of focusing on such differences as constituting a protected feature of groups of individuals, who live ordinary lives just like everyone else, risks elevating religious differences to a defining status in the relationships we form with them.

The upshot is that rather than religious differences not figuring in our thinking as salient and distinguishing features at all, which is what we should be aiming for, there is a risk that religious differences become features that we need to learn how to constructively manage in our relationships.

There is something wrong with this.

As soon as we begin to think of others as being of a certain religion, and start to see them as being different from us in virtue of their beliefs, but to be respected and tolerated nonetheless, we are already heading in a direction in which we need to tread very carefully.

It is as if ‘being different from ours’ were one of the defining characteristics of their religious beliefs, such that we could not think of them and their beliefs without thinking about how they were necessarily different, and it is as if our moral duty were then to find a way of ‘tolerating’ that fact.

To talk of ‘tolerating’ other religious beliefs suggests that there is something we find offensive about them, almost as if we are talking about keeping a lid on our anger whilst we tolerate someone else’s annoying habits.

The implication is already built in that their beliefs irritate us somehow.

Eventually the lid will come off again. And it won’t come as a big surprise.

We are thinking about this in the wrong way.

That is exactly why those responsible for developing anti-sectarian initiatives need to be very careful not to frame the initiatives in such a manner that they either become ineffective, by working with poorly defined terms in the first place, or become counter-productive, by unwittingly reinforcing existing divisions in our thinking.

Otherwise, we are in danger of making the very same errors the initiatives were designed to avoid, with the message of hope – and the opportunity to bring about real change – completely lost.

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