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.