Tag Archives: offensive behaviour at football

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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‘I pity the poor immigrant’

The introduction of new legislation to protect those offended by certain expressions of another person’s religious world view and cultural heritage has proven to be largely unpopular among many people.

When the offensive behaviour at football matches and threatening communications legislation kicks in, the debate about whether it was required in the first place will eventually fizzle out, but its effects will be felt for quite some time.

One such effect is that it has inadvertently created a situation in which some of the individuals most ardently in favour of the legislation have morally positioned themselves dangerously close to the unwanted persona they thought were trying to remove.

This is what I mean –

We have all heard someone say that they are starting to feel like an immigrant in their own country.

Now, more often than not, individuals who make this type of comment are expressing what they believe to be a genuine concern.

For them, it is a genuine concern that their cultural identity has been eroded by too many different nationalities and ethnic groups appearing to have a stronger voice and claim to rights than they are comfortable with.

Underlying this concern is a mangled interpretation of the priority of their rights over the rights of others who have come to live and work in ‘their country’.

It is an interpretation that is often driven by a subconscious belief that the dominance of their cultural identity ought to be guaranteed over any other.

Yet our history was shaped by immigrants and shifting groups of people. It is a mix of stories. It is a mix of different groups of people with different cultural identities. It is a mix of displaced Irish, Italians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Poles, and many more.

The concerns expressed by some people today are the very same ones that many more people have been expressing for hundreds of years.

Discrimination, prejudice and bigotry are woven tightly into the fabric of our society, and always have been, leaving many people feeling psychologically compelled, and others legally forced, to suppress the natural expression of their different cultural identities.

Having to suppress the expression of your cultural identity, because of arrogant and aggressive intolerance shown towards your particular ethnic group, creates a context in which that identity is in danger of becoming redefined in a negative way, both in a self-questioning sense, and also in the growing opinion of the aggressors.

The very act of having to suppress your cultural identity connects it to feelings of resentment and anger, which occasionally spills over into overt behaviour that happens to offend other people, and thus the vicious circle kicks in.

But in addition to dealing with genuine cases of violent and vile behaviour, introducing new legislation specifically aimed at stamping it out ironically feeds the vicious circle of suppression, anger and resentment, and keeps it going round.

Now, to return to the original point about those who feel there is something wrong with groups of people expressing their cultural identity because they find it offensive.

Such individuals are themselves edging dangerously close to the distorted and ugly image they have of the people they want to silence. They are guilty of turning their intolerance into a campaign for legislation against the positive expression of cultural identity and diversity.

Those individuals who say that they are starting to feel like immigrants in their own country probably should be feeling this way.

The country they live in has a different cultural structure and ethnic diversity from the one they feel comfortable living in.

It has always been this way, but rather than embrace this positive diversity, they have tried to enforce its suppression through displays of bitter intolerance and prejudice.

And that is pitiful.

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Conclusion: A Fresh Approach to Tackling Sectarianism?

Sectarianism is regarded by many as Scotland’s shame.

Roseanna Cunningham comments that, ‘Sectarianism shouldn’t be part of a modern Scotland and we need to do everything we can to eradicate it once and for all. To put it quite simply, it will not be tolerated.’

She is absolutely correct, but the problem is that the various efforts over the years to eradicate sectarianism have failed. The question that needs to be asked is quite simple:

Why has so much money been spent, and much more promised, on government projects and police initiatives, community education programmes, football summits and parliamentary debates, when the problem still exists and shows no sign of being resolved?

The reason, as far as I can work out, is that these various initiatives are only a very small part of what needs to be a much more radical solution. On their own, they are not going to have any real traction. They just won’t stick. But what would a more radical solution look like?

I think that in order to eradicate sectarianism from Scotland, it would be necessary to stop thinking about it as a problem in isolation, one that can be covered up, or removed, like an unwanted blemish on an otherwise clear complexion.

Sectarianism emerges out of a complicated web of relationships that have taken shape over a very long period of time. It is the spawn of unjust and elitist political frameworks, the adoption and celebration of official state religions, the unregulated use of discriminatory and highly exploitative economic policies, all mixed up with basic human drives and desires.

And of course, all of this fits quite neatly with human nature. It fits quite neatly into our need for safety and self-preservation; the need to protect what belongs to us and the desire to acquire more of it; the fear and distrust of what and whom we do not understand.

This is the context of sectarianism. Not just in Scotland, but in many other countries around the world.

The radical solution would require a complete rethink of how the country is governed. It would require having a much stronger sense of social justice, equality and inclusiveness at its heart and undoing the economic policies that only reward the elite groups and favoured sections of society.

It would require dismantling the connections between church and state. It would require introducing policies that promote equality and opportunity for everyone, rather than ones that subtly depend on the existence of inequality, discrimination and exclusion.

The problem is that this type of change will not happen and that is why the government continually comes up with expensive new initiatives and nice looking projects to appear to be doing something and to divert our focus away from the real issue.

The real issue is this: upholding the structures that guarantee government control, maintaining the policies that ensure continued social stability for majority groups, permitting selected people to operate outside of the rules to create the right amount of wealth to satisfy the nation’s spending commitments, debt repayments and credit ratings, is much more of a priority for the people who run the country than ensuring the eradication of one its ugly by-products.

Sectarianism, like other forms of discrimination, was integral to how the country was built and how it developed over many years. Whilst it is not so blatantly part of the tool kit of politicians and church leaders today as it was then, it nonetheless remains as a by-product of how this country, and others, continue to function and operate.

Ensuring that the country works, without radical change and substantial overhaul, means keeping in place all of the structures and frameworks that give rise to the conditions that create it. You can re-educate people all you want, but that won’t substantially change anything.

Perhaps over a much longer period of time this problem will just go away of its own accord. Perhaps this is what the Government hopes will happen, whilst it sits back and takes the plaudits for encouraging its disappearance through a raft of expensive initiatives and unnecessary laws.

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“It wasn’t me singing that offensive song…”

I remember attending choir practice at school. I was so bad at singing that the teacher said to me, ‘move your mouth as if you were singing, but don’t actually sing anything’. Unfortunately choir practice was compulsory and therefore lip-synching became my survival technique, allowing me to blend in effortlessly with the others around me.

Now, here is a thought about the application of the proposed legislation against offensive behaviour at football matches. Not only has it been worded in such a manner that renders it open to interpretation in too many instances – does such and such a song count as sectarian; were such and such actions motivated by religious prejudice; and so on, and so forth.

But it also creates the possibility of a very simple defence. Think about this: you have been identified as having sung a religiously offensive song at a football match. You promptly deny it. You insist that you were not actually singing, just moving your mouth in a manner that made it look as if you were.

Now take this a step further. You agree that you were in fact singing, but you were not actually singing the offensive song you have been accused of singing. Rather, you claim that you were singing an entirely different song at the same time the people who happened to be sitting around you were singing a religiously offensive song, making it look as if you were joining in. And now imagine each of the people around you were to insist the same in their own case…

Short of having CCTV cameras and microphones rigged up to each individual, how on earth could you prove that any one individual was singing any one song in particular, rather than an entirely different song? It may have appeared that you were singing an offensive song, because of where you happened to be sitting at the time, and because you looked as if you were singing something, but it would be difficult to prove it.

The authorities can prove that there was an offensive song being sung by the crowd and that it was coming from the area of the stand where you happened to be sitting. But surely that is not sufficient evidence to prove that it was coming from me, you or him?

Would the charge be dropped on the grounds that it would be impossible to prove? Or, for the sake of saving face and appearing to be doing something rather than nothing, would we all be convicted of looking as if we were singing offensive songs? How absurd would that be?

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