You Should be Offended by SNP Football Laws
The most offensive thing I regularly hear in football stadiums is at Scotland games where quite often, to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain”, Scotland fans chant:
If you hate the fucking English clap your hands,
If you hate the fucking English clap your hands,
If you hate the fucking English, Hate the fucking English,
Hate the fucking English clap your hands.
It’s hard to know exactly how many people are doing it but it is sung quite loudly and enthusiastically so there must be thousands.
Now, if Police Scotland were truly enforcing the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act they would need to arrest a fair portion of Scotland fans at most Scotland games. Afterall, expressing hatred of a group of people is one of the most offensive things you can do. That they don’t highlights one of the reasons the law is a bad law. It is unenforceable as if it were to be properly applied then there would be thousands of arrests every weekend. Not just because there is a lot of offensive chanting at football but also because there is literally nothing that could not be deemed by some to be offensive. The truth about the law is that it is used by police on an inconsistent, discretionary and arbitrary basis and often to criminalise behaviour that is much less offensive than expressing hatred of a whole country.
And it’s not even like the law is effective. In the years since the act was introduced, fewer than 200 people each year have been arrested and only about half of them are convicted. The law has one of the lowest conviction rates of any crime and everyone who has been arrested, whether rightly or wrongly, could have been arrested under existing Breach Of the Peace laws. Most are charged for ‘threatening behaviour’ which includes engaging in or threatening others to a fight. In 2014-2015, only 41 percent of the 193 people who were charged were arrested for behaviour that could be deemed offensive. Not only is the law hard to enforce and to get convictions from but according to research carried out by at Stirling University, there is no evidence that the law has led to a reduction in offensive behaviour. And moreover, enforcing the law has caused resources to be dragged away from more serious violent crimes, which are often prearranged between groups of casuals far away from football grounds.
Being a potential murderer is not a crime, nor is being a potential thief, but being potentially insulting is fair game for prosecution it seems. What’s more, an offensive song is only deemed criminal under this law if you are a football fan and that in itself is discriminatory and as such, offensive.
Like it or loath it, until recently the opportunity to legally cause offence was just about all of what remained of the old working class ritual of attending football matches. For 90 minutes of our otherwise sanitised mundane existence, we can get angry and euphoric, we can scream obscenities and shout adulation, taunt our rivals and bond with our tribe. Albeit in the state controlled and increasingly corporatised environs of the modern football stadium. Once the vast majority of us were able to go to the games, let off steam and return home to our homogenized existence without significant risk of trauma, violence or arrest. But now we, and the public at large, are coddled by the state, protected from anything that may be deemed offensive or obscene.
Offence is by its very nature subjective and I for one am not easily offended. Despite being raised a Catholic and a Celtic supporter and being in attendance at dozens of Old Firm games, I have never been offended by Rangers fans singing songs like “Billy Boys”. The ode to a street gang run by a strike-breaker and member of the British Fascists, contains the provocative line ‘We’re up to our knees in Fenian blood’. I understand why a lot of Celtic fans might legitimately be offended by it in the same way that I can understand why a Unionist may be offended by a song celebrating the exploits of IRA members. Both sets of fans venerate historical figures who were involved in the perpetration of violence against members of the opposite clan.
It’s often not pretty but it is more laudable than allowing the state to decide what we can and cannot say. As when what is criminal is open to interpretation a government could deem any sort of legitimate protest to be against the law. In fact, many of the songs which people are arrested for singing, some would argue are political songs, and acceptable forms of expression. “Roll Of Honour”, which eulogises the IRA hunger strikers is a case in point. It is easy to see why some might be offended by the lyrics, but like “Billy Boys”, it is hard to argue that the song is not grounded in culture, history and politics. Many of the things people are being arrested for have the heft to offend exactly because they have, depending on your outlook, a hard divisive truth to them.
Also, even if the state were to base what they deem as offensive on general public opinion, a historical law like this would have criminalised support for many things most of us now consider normal. Not so long ago a song supporting votes for women, or a chant proposing gay people should be allowed to marry would have been a criminal offence. Because in our not too distant past we were offended by the thought of those things. That we no longer find these acts offensive is a direct process of dealing with our objections head on. But by trying to deny people the opportunity to cause offence and be offended, we deny them the chance to grow.
It is not perhaps a popular view nowadays in our modern world of trigger warnings, safe spaces and micro-aggressions. But being offended is actually good for you. For we are only offended when we hear or read opinions that directly clash with our own staunchly held world views. Therefore, being offended, after the sting fades, is an opportunity to learn about someone else’s way of looking at the world and to reassess or confirm our own opinions. Being allowed to cause offence is an opportunity to feel remorse, to be challenged and to wonder why the majority of our tribe are no longer joining in. That is why the worst behaviour of football fans has been slowly dying. Scotland is not what it once was, sectarianism and bigotry in the workplace have all but gone, families and friends no longer go to the same chapel or church. The most obviously offensive chants are the mainstay of a tiny minority and even half of them don’t actually mean what they are singing. This cultural shift is partially due to our ability to feel, cause and react to offence, of having the opportunity of coming into contact with what we find odious – a phenomenon the Scottish Government are determined to outlaw.
When I stand in Hampden Park and listen to a large section of Scotland supporters singing that they hate the English I do feel a cultural cringe. It makes us sound like a stereotypical parochial nation with a chip on our collective shoulder. Unlike some of the chants deemed offensive there doesn’t seem much justification for this one on a historical, cultural or political level. If it was hating Westminster, or the Establishment, or the Tories or the English sports media I might get it.
Free speech, even offensive speech, should be sacrosanct and above the Law but there is nothing to stop us policing it ourselves. When we hear chants that we think cross a line of what is acceptable we should first try to understand them. And, after doing so, if the audible majority does not fairly represent the whole, perhaps we should intervene. It is better to do so ourselves than have our government criminalise what is an essential aspect of a healthy society.
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