Tag Archives: 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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Some Thoughts on ‘Minority Reporter’

I have just finished reading Phil Mac Giolla Bhain’s new book, ‘Minority Reporter: Modern Scotland’s bad attitude towards her own Irish’.

As part of a discussion about the football subculture that gave us the Famine Song, one of the central claims made in this book is that rather than confront difficult truths about the existence of anti-Irish racism in Scotland, we would rather describe certain behaviours as ‘sectarian’, and deal with the implications of that instead. Or in the worst case, dismiss it altogether as harmless banter.

The key point is that in many cases what we are actually witnessing is intra-cultural racism rather than sectarianism. It is racism towards our own fellow Scots, who just happen to be proud of their Irish heritage; but it is almost as if we preferred to think of ourselves as living in a society blemished by religious prejudice, than to think of ourselves as a nation that cannot bring itself to embrace the different ethnicities that shape its culture.

Phil Mac Giolla Bhain argues that the sectarian framework in Scotland is essentially a useful tool, with its utility consisting in the fact that it enables us to avoid confronting the true description of some of the behaviours we have become accustomed to characterising as ‘sectarian’.

I find a great deal of merit in these ideas, because although I am not completely certain where to draw the line between racism and sectarianism in every case, they contain a reminder that we need to be more authentic in our judgements and not be so fixated on the sectarian framework that we miss what is actually occurring in front of us. We have become blind to the true nature of the problem and therefore its solution.

Another important point to take from this book is that despite hints of negativity towards Scotland, I think the author is nonetheless promoting a positive and powerful message that we would all do well to take on board. If the Scottish Government is serious about realising its ambition of being ‘one country, many cultures’, it needs to play a key role in shifting the agenda away from the sectarian framework where appropriate, and locating this particular debate in its correct space.

In doing so, we will have an opportunity as a nation to look within, but from a more authentic stand point; it will be an opportunity for every one of us to become part of a more confident culture that provides the space for all Scots to self-define, whatever their background, whatever their political preferences, whatever their religion and whatever their heritage happens to be.

Well worth a read!

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Bigotry By Misperception

There is something not quite right in the psychology of individuals who seek out signs of bigotry in others, in order to vent the type of false moral outrage that we have become accustomed to these days.

Particularly when they begin to see manifestations of bigotry in perfectly innocent situations and are no longer able to tell the difference between the largest Island off the coast of Ireland, for example, and the second largest religion in the world (completely misconstrued, of course, as something to be offended by).

What we tend to see is heavily influenced by a mix of subconscious beliefs, attitudes and emotions; it is not uncommon to impose our own expectations of reality onto the naked facts in front of us. We respond to what we think we see, and what we want to see, rather than what actually is the case.

When the background beliefs and attitudes have been built up over the years in what can be described as a tense, embittered and contentious context at best, it is not surprising that our ability to make clear eyed judgements diminishes. Too often we get it wrong.

Part of the problem in Scotland is that this tendency to get it wrong has been exacerbated by the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act, recently described by Dundee Sheriff, Davidson, as ‘horribly drafted’ and ‘mince’, and which has succeeded in putting most of us off the scent entirely in terms of what, from a legal perspective, now counts as offensive and what doesn’t.

Be that as it may, we have reached a point where some individuals feel compelled to pounce on any scrap of evidence they can find, or think they can find, in order to promote the idea that there are other groups of individuals with a greater propensity for bigotry than the one to which they belong – ‘shameful…’ and ‘disgraceful…’ are among some of the commonly used epithets.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that it is partly about trying to balance the books by sharing out the guilt. It is something most of us did as children and many continue to do into adulthood. The mince legislation fits this immature notion of balance like a glove. It also makes it so much more likely that we will point the finger in the wrong direction.

If nothing else, one man’s embarrassing error last Sunday helps to highlight the more general truth that, thanks to the Offensive Behaviour at Football legislation, it is now part of Scottish football culture that some groups of supporters will try to vilify innocent behaviours, gestures, banners and songs, by throwing their own unchecked belief systems and ugly expectations over the facts.

Rather than help eradicate bigotry at football matches in Scotland, this legislation has actually succeeded in creating an added dimension to the bigotry that already existed, because so many individuals now think that they can see signs of bigotry in places where no such bigotry exists. They themselves become the bigots they claim to despise.

I think bigotry by misperception would appear to be a more serious problem than the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act could ever have anticipated – not least because the hastily written legislation helped nurture this embarrassing problem along.

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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:

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2012/1/contents/enacted

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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Catholic Schools, Religious Discrimination and Racism

There has been another recent burst of interest in the problem of anti-Catholicism in Scottish society.

Opinions vary on how prevalent it is and whether it is in fact a significant problem or not. Some think it is, and believe they have evidence to that effect, whilst many others disagree.

Within the context of these discussions, the existence of state funded Catholic schools has come up again as an important talking point. Questions have been raised as to why they are funded by tax payers’ money at all, and how much of an effect they have on the enduring problem of sectarianism in Scotland.

In discussing these issues, I think it is instructive to look back for a moment, and compare the way in which Catholic schools figured in public debate at the beginning of the 1900’s, around the time of the Education Act (Scotland), and how they figure in similar debates today.

It is instructive in the sense that one of the deepest roots of today’s objections to their existence may be traceable to this earlier period, during which they took a slightly different outward form; a form that could perhaps throw some light on a question I struggled with in an earlier blog – whether sectarianism is a form of racism. The merit of understanding the answer to this question is that it would help shape the type of solutions we ought to be putting forward to eradicate this type of bigotry from society.

The common objection to the existence of Catholic schools today is that they contribute to the problem of sectarianism in Scottish society by breeding a subconscious segregation psychology at an early age based on religious differences, a situation that is made worse in the eyes of the objectors because these schools are funded by the Government.

According to 2010 figures, there were 373 state funded Catholic schools out of a total of 2,722 schools in Scotland. The Scottish Government’s position on Catholic schools is positive and supportive. The view is that they play an important part in our society and parents and pupils should have the choice to attend one if they want to. They also tend to have very high achievement records.

Despite such Government support, in his Cardinal Winning Education Lecture in 2008, Alex Salmond described the general attitude towards Catholic schools in Scotland today as one of grudging acceptance at best, and outright hostility at worst:

http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Speeches/Speeches/First-Minister/cardwinlecture

It is an attitude that was passionately expressed by Scottish Conservative MSP, John Lamont, during a parliamentary debate on the Offensive Behaviour and Threatening Communications Bill in 2011, in which he said that our education system was effectively the “state-sponsored conditioning of sectarian attitudes”.

In his efforts to draw a direct link between state funded Catholic schools with the problem of sectarianism in Scotland, John Lamont remarked that the resulting “segregation of our young people has brought them up to believe that the two communities should be kept separate”:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-13891033

Prior to the 1872 Education Act, Catholic Schools were mainly set up and paid for by Irish immigrant communities in Scotland. It was a means of teaching Roman Catholic values and instilling a strong sense of moral discipline to those born into these impoverished communities, who may otherwise have missed out on formal education altogether.

After 1872 Catholic Schools were encouraged to integrate into the wider state system. Many decided not to do so out of concern that the values being taught would be of the wrong influence. However, the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act removed this concern by making provisions to fund Catholic State Schools in Scotland. To many sections of Scottish society, this was a controversial move.

Reflecting on the type of objections to Catholic schools around this time suggests that the concern in the early 1900’s was not the fashionably moral one we come across today of claiming that their existence leads to sectarian conditioning in children – the implication being that the existence of Catholic schools aggravates and perpetuates the problem.

Rather it was that their existence was viewed as an unwanted solution to the problem of Irish Catholic immigrants in Scotland – the implication being that Irish Catholics, with allegiance to Papal authority in Rome, were believed to be a menace to Scottish Protestantism and hence a threat to Scottish culture and to the Scottish identity. There was therefore a racist undertone to the debate.

At a meeting of the Scottish Protestant Congress on the 9th October 1923, whose purpose was to discuss the ‘Burden of Roman Catholic Schools’ and the ‘Effects of Irish Immigration’, and which was reported in the following day’s Scotsman newspaper, The Rev. Dr Mackintosh Mackay spoke of the financial burden of Catholic schools on the people of Scotland and the “progress of Romanism” as a direct consequence.

It was deemed “unfair that the education of the land should be crippled in order to maintain the education of children of an alien population”. It was reported that he could not understand the psychology of Scottish members of Parliament in passing the Bill leading to the 1918 Education Act.

At the same meeting, the Rev. Duncan Cameron spoke about ‘Protestantism’ being synonymous with ‘Scottish people’, whereas those who were coming in were faithful and loyal servants of Rome. He was concerned about Scottish people having to give up the ideals and traditions of their fathers and insisted that ‘the Scottish race had a great mission…the safeguarding of Protestantism’.

Therefore, there would appear to have been a strong link between anti-Catholic and anti-Irish prejudice at this time. The concerns about the financial burden of Catholic schools on the state were almost inseparable from concerns about the threat of Irish immigrants and their children posing a threat to Scottish Protestantism and hence the identity of the Scottish race.

How much of this early twentieth century influence still lingers in the Scottish psyche today is an interesting question and it is not altogether easy to answer. But what it clearly highlights is that the problems of religious bigotry and racism are sometimes so closely interlinked that the one cannot be properly understood without reference to the other.

Perhaps the debate about the continued existence of Catholic schools today is entirely innocent. Perhaps it is simply about the financial burden on limited Government funds in a time of economic austerity and the (tenuous) link between Catholic schools and sectarianism.

Or perhaps these are just some of the objections that tend to be given in a time of greater political correctness – and possibly without conscious intent – to mask the deep rooted cultural attitude of rejecting that which is not perceived to be of traditional Scottish stock and everything that entails.

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On Whether Sectarianism is a Form of Racism

The question of whether sectarianism is a form of racism is an important one.

Not only does it have a bearing on how we ought to understand instances of sectarian behaviour and how such instances should be dealt with from a legal point of view; it also has a bearing on the most appropriate way of managing sectarianism out of our society.

At the 2012 Festival of Politics at the Scottish Parliament, Professor Richard Finlay of Strathclyde University put forward the view that sectarianism in Scotland should indeed be regarded as a form of racism. Whilst I am not completely convinced that this is correct in all cases, I do agree that there are benefits in this position.

Firstly, it helps us break away from the narrow understanding of sectarianism in Scotland as nothing more than religious bigotry rooted in certain working class communities. In addition to this, thinking about sectarianism as a form of racism helps deliver a more accurate account of the origins of sectarianism in Scottish society.

But more importantly, understanding sectarianism this way might help bring about a structural shift in our thinking, such that instances of sectarian behaviour begin to be perceived differently, with greater social stigma attaching to them than perhaps would have been the case under popular understanding of what the term denotes:

http://www.heraldscotland.com/mobile/politics/political-news/professor-in-bigotry-plea-to-holyrood.18593624?_=079fcb03b8a50fd66f926ba473b88aa3ad530c50

In Scotland, sectarianism tends to be popularly understood in terms of the bitterness and hatred between two Glasgow football teams, the divisiveness and triumphalism of parades and marching bands, and the controversial existence of faith schools.

These are some of the automatic associations many of us make. However as Professor Finlay notes, the problem runs much deeper than this, and cannot be disconnected from an underlying anti-Irish sentiment which has prevailed in Scottish society for generations, particularly from the 19th century onwards.

On the other hand, Patrick Yu, Director for the Northern Ireland Council of Ethnic Minorities, has previously been on record to argue that, in Northern Ireland at least, it would be unwise to conflate issues of sectarianism and racism. His belief is that doing so would draw the courts into the wrong types of dispute, for which separate provisions already exist in law.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-14636076

So is it correct to argue that sectarianism is a form of racism? Does each country have its own distinctive brand of sectarianism, with only some instances meriting description as a form of racism? Could sectarianism be a form of racism in one country, but not in another? Would that even make sense?

Or would it be more accurate to argue that there are instances of sectarian behaviour that sit outside the scope of internationally recognised definitions of racial discrimination, and therefore should merit different legal and social treatment? It is a difficult one.

Whatever the case elsewhere, there are obvious connections between Scotland’s brand of sectarianism and the racial prejudice historically displayed towards those of Irish Catholic descent living and working in this country. It has just rolled on since then, in greater or lesser degrees over the years, and taking different forms at different times.

So whilst I see the reasons behind Professor Finlay’s thinking, I am still not entirely convinced that it would be correct to say that sectarianism is a form of racism. I completely agree with the idea that it would be socially expedient to think of sectarianism in this way, if doing so helped change the way we manage instances of offensive behaviour motivated by religious hatred.

But what I also think is this – and it is why I believe we should exercise caution in seeking a closer alignment of the two – treating sectarianism as a form of racism could force a fundamental redefinition of prominent world religions that would diminish the universal nature of their core beliefs by localising them to a people, a time and place.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, if sectarianism is in fact a form of racism, then arguably we are also holding the view that tolerating another person’s religion is the same thing as tolerating his race. We need to be careful how closely we want to tie these two concepts together –

Because not only would this seem to threaten the autonomy of religious belief with respect to race and ethnic origin; I think it could also make it very difficult to rationally debate and logically criticise belief systems promoted by other religions – as should be our right – without running the risk of making implicit criticisms and unintended negative judgements on issues of race and ethnicity.

And having built the good part of the argument on the premise that racism is inherently wrong in the first place, this could prove to be dangerous territory to wander back into.

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Confronting the Bigot Within

The underlying premise of most anti-racism initiatives appears to be that education in the virtue of tolerance is the key to eradicating it from our society. It is the most obvious place to start, but we need to go deeper.

There may be racist beliefs and attitudes within our subconscious mind that are responsible for more than the set of intentional actions and judgements that we would ordinarily hold up as prime examples of racist behaviour.

There seems to have been a recent rise in the number of high profile incidents of racism. It is interesting to note the ones involving professional footballers, who would otherwise insist – and I am sure they actually believe it – that holding racist attitudes and beliefs is wrong, and definitely not in their nature.

It is interesting in the sense that it throws some light on the possibility of individuals holding racist beliefs and attitudes without necessarily being aware of this being the case – to the extent that they would happily offer a strong rebuttal of what their behaviour would appear to suggest.

The same possibility holds in the case of other forms of bigotry. Keeping the discussion within the world of football, homophobia and sectarianism are other good examples of this.

Subconscious connections between many of our basic beliefs help form the bedrock of our judgements and perceptions. The problem is that many of the connections at this level are rarely formed intentionally. They emerge on their own accord through our upbringing into a particular way of life.

The way we perceive our environment and the judgements we make about the situations we find ourselves in may carry implicit commitments to beliefs we would not consciously recognise as our own. But that is the curious thing about some bigoted beliefs – first person authority is not always a given.

These are the toughest cases to tackle, because it requires some form of introspective acknowledgement that certain utterances and gestures may carry doxastic commitments that are irreconcilable with what you consider to be your everyday outlook on life. It is a hard thing to do.

The psychology of bigotry is complex. Getting inside the mind of a bigot is difficult, particularly in your own case. Access is ordinarily denied at the first point of entry. It is our subconscious gatekeeper’s job to stubbornly refuse this type of interpretation on our behalf and suggest a more respectable alternative.

And returning to high profile incidents associated with football for a moment, the challenge becomes even harder. The good efforts to tackle racism are often completely nullified by the use of expensive lawyers who are adept at creating that all important element of doubt, even in cases where there should have been none whatsoever.

Here we reach an almost insurmountable barrier. There is a possibility that unacknowledged bigoted beliefs may well be found within each and every one of us, which makes the challenge of eradicating racism from society hard enough.

It is made even more difficult by the fact that many high profile individuals appear to think nothing of appealing to ridiculously expensive mechanisms to guarantee the type of impunity the rest of us are denied – and the upshot of this is that racism, for very different reasons, is always likely to be a feature of our society, despite our best efforts to tackle it.

This doesn’t mean we should give up trying. It simply means that every single individual in our society – including those who have sufficient funds to opt out of our hard earned moral space – has an obligation to think about finding and confronting the bigot within.

Even though the very idea of doing that would feel unnecessary to those who can afford to ignore it, and contrary to everything the rest of us would want to believe about ourselves in the first place.

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Spiers On ‘the Rogue, Angry Underclass’

Graham Spiers has been honest enough in the past to recognise his gullibility in relaying the myths peddled by the former Rangers FC Owner, David Murray. He is the one who likes to take credit for having initiated the use of the phrase ‘succulent lamb’, after all.

And in an interesting and honest article today, he describes the intimidating treatment that certain individuals (himself included) have received from a minority of Rangers supporters over the years, for having had the audacity to speak out against what they believed their football club represented. He describes this minority as the ‘rogue, angry underclass’:

http://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/opinion/spiers-on-sport-coming-under-threat-for-criticising-rangers.1351601156

Whatever his motives are for writing this piece, Spiers correctly highlights an enduring problem in Scottish society: there is a hard core of rogue individuals who are intent on keeping racial and religious prejudices alive and certain football clubs – not just Rangers – have become perceived as significant outlets for that purpose.

In the case of Rangers, he is picking out specific historical prejudices that are so deeply intertwined with all that is wrong with the Scottish – British culture, and its perpetuation in certain local traditions, institutions and establishments, that reason and logic will never be sufficient to undo them.

Spiers captures this in his reference to a “faux Protestant culture around Rangers” as something that many fans want to bin, but which the “traditionalists” want to preserve. His contention is that most Rangers fans want to dispense with that type of nonsense as part of the assumed identity of their club, and I would think that he is right.

But for me the question that arises is this: is there something about supporting a football club like Rangers (or Celtic, for that matter) that makes it inevitable that the rogue element will always attach itself to it, creating an unsavoury dimension to the club that otherwise does not exist?

Perhaps it is similar to the feeling of belonging to a group, but taken to a different level. Perhaps supporting a football club gives some individuals their sense of purpose and identity – almost as if it were an alternative to, or in some cases extension of, belonging to a gang. It is the common, tribal prejudices of the rogue individuals interpreted into the fabric of the club.

This is an emotional investment gone wrong. Yet perhaps it explains why the rogue individuals feel they need to make a stance about something the rest of us will have no truck with, and why they believe they have a duty to protect and defend a culture – using intimidating methods, or otherwise – that most people have long since wanted to move away from.

Sadly, I think the rogue, angry underclass will be with us in Scottish football for as long as it exists in Scottish society; it will exist in Scottish society for as long as we feel snookered within the corrupt and elitist politico-economic frameworks that have shaped our lives for generations. And as Spiers might suggest, you could challenge that one, but at your peril.

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Sectarianism as a Political Tool (Some General Thoughts)

To some people, having a religion is about having a deeply personal relationship with their God.

It is an intrinsically private set of experiences that provides strength, purpose and comfort. As such, it remains a uniquely personal feature of their inner world. It helps define their sense of identity.

To others it is better described as having a firm commitment to a particular way of living. It is about being immersed in a set of sociocultural practices, participating in fixed routines and engaging in rituals that have a distinctly public, yet intensely spiritual feel to them.

Some find themselves shifting around somewhere in the middle; whilst others hold no such beliefs at all. To me, it shouldn’t really matter how religious beliefs are understood; nor should it matter which particular religious beliefs people live by, if any at all.

What does matter is that religious beliefs are authentically and honestly preserved by those who hold them, and not mocked, disrespected or vilified by those who do not. But achieving that is always problematic.

The honest preservation of religious beliefs is often left to interpretation, and influenced by other competing factors, occasionally leading to corrupted versions of how they were intended to shape values and guide behaviours. And likewise, the obligation not to be disrespectful towards other religious beliefs is not universally felt today, sometimes as a direct consequence, and other times without any sound reason at all.

But this is precisely the point at which sectarian conflicts begin to emerge, not just in this country, but in any country in which there are very complex historical relationships between religion, ethnicity and politics. Sectarianism is rarely a stand-alone problem.

Various histories of military invasion, occupation and aggressive intervention, typically with the primary purpose of economic control and exploitation, have created the right mix of ingredients for the emergence of violent conflicts, local skirmishes and global wars among religious fundamentalists, extremists and other terrorist groups at different times.

Encouraging the growth of certain forms of sectarianism – by means of discriminatory Government policies, blatant or otherwise, pushed through media propaganda and establishment institutions – can be a very effective means of ethnic management and political control in some countries.

In this sense, sectarianism is a political tool through which ethnic groups can be managed, manipulated for electoral support, and territorially adjusted when it suits for economic purpose. But this takes us a very long way from the original starting point of religion as a bundle of fortifying personal experiences or as a guide to a peaceful way of life.

Sectarianism used as a political tool is a deliberate attempt to create a dangerous climate of suspicion, distrust and hatred. In extreme cases it leads to appalling violence and shocking acts of terrorism; quite often because it is used within a context of greed, exploitation and corruption, but usually always because it has been intertwined with an array of ethnic management measures that run deep into the fabric of our global society.

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The Inexcusable Appeal to Heritage

Celebrating a heritage is good and important.

However, celebrating a heritage in a way that is felt to be offensive to other sections of the very same society surely cannot be considered in the same light. Clearly, there is something not quite right about it.

It is undeniably true that some of our current social problems – particularly sectarian bigotry and racial hatred – have their historical roots in many of the shameful ethnic and religious conflicts that ultimately helped form the much vaunted, and highly esteemed, constitutional structure of this country today.

Yet many people still strongly believe in the right to celebrate historical occurrences of this nature, because of what they are assumed to represent, and regardless of the negative impact the style and location of their celebrations have been known to have on others.

And they tend to justify their commitment to this belief by claiming that the historical occurrences in question constitute ‘their heritage’, and therefore feel entitled to immerse themselves in the traditional behaviours that help preserve it.

In other words, the idea of ‘having the right to celebrate your heritage’, becomes a means of intellectually legitimising a lapse into what could otherwise be described as offensive, or at times irrational, behaviour; and arguably, we have all been guilty of misappropriating history in this way, at some point or other. No side is entirely innocent.

Whether you respect this way of thinking or not, and it can be found on every side of the debate, I think there is something unsettling in the fact that there are many individuals who feel more committed to keeping historical injustices and prejudices alive, than they do about addressing the problems in society today.

I think there is a level of emotional inauthenticity in some individuals that makes it much easier for them to react with passion, and a sense of triumph, to a romantic version of destructive historical occurrences, than make the effort to shape a more cohesive and peaceful society for the future.

This is particularly so when the history that is perpetuated through cleverly crafted stories, rousing tunes and colourful ritualistic behaviours, is often made to appear more glorious to the insular and bigoted mind than it ever was. Ethnic discrimination, religious persecution, murder, terrorism, theft, misery, displacement, starvation and intolerable hardship; these are hardly notions worth glorifying and celebrating.

Yet sadly, it is not too uncommon to find these occurrences interpreted in today’s terms in a manner that is believed to justify celebrating them still, usually as having been the only rightful means of ensuring the removal of the wrong type of religion, or the wrong type of ethnicity, as barriers to the monarchical and constitutional objectives that were pursued at the time.

But this is the crux of the problem: in thinking this way, we are guilty of distorting the importance that certain occurrences in history may have for the way we ought to understand the world today – despite the fact that, given the utterly different world view at the time, they may have been regarded as absolutely necessary measures and completely within the law.

In other words, we run the risk of burying ourselves deeper and deeper into an inescapably depressing and anachronistic rut, every time we refer to a version of history to support an agenda that is no longer commensurate with how the majority of people live their lives today.

There is no getting away from the fact that there are elements on every side of the debate who feel the urge, from time to time, to make the inexcusable appeal to heritage to justify their own descent into offensiveness, their own mode of defiance, or their own form of retaliation. And this, as history has repeatedly confirmed, gets us absolutely nowhere.

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