Football fans: canaries in the illiberal coalmine

Stuart Waiton

Topics Politics

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The Scottish government is being urged to scrap the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBA) – an act that can potentially imprison fans for up to five years for being offensive at a match. Much of the opposition to the OBA, which was introduced in 2012, relates to its lack of clarity and the need to be more focused on the problem of sectarianism.

From the beginning, the OBA was obviously a political stunt aimed at gaining cheap moral credit for ‘standing up to sectarianism’, an issue that most people accept is largely confined to football and rarely has significance anywhere else in Scottish society. Of course, this should make people realise that sectarianism in the religious sense, and in relation to the Irish question, is relatively insignificant in Scottish society. Football, after all, is a bit of a pantomime.

The interesting thing about the Offensive Behaviour Act is its name. The problem with the legislation before the OBA was that it potentially allowed IRA chants, because they can be said to be political. But as this act targets offensiveness, Celtic fans could be arrested alongside their Rangers equivalents.

What critics of the OBA miss is the extent to which this act tapped into a growing trend towards criminalising offensiveness itself – a profoundly dangerous development for anybody who believes in freedom of speech or indeed democracy. You need only look at the way society is becoming less tolerant of ‘offensiveness’ to realise there is something bigger going on, outside of football.

Take today’s student activists, for example, who campaign for Safe Spaces and attempt to ban anything that can be said to be offensive. For today’s young ‘radicals’, the aim is to ban; and, in a few years’ time, when these same people become our politicians, they might make words and ideas that they find unacceptable illegal.

Being offended has become an industry in Britain. What can and can’t be said is no longer simply a matter of political correctness, but of emotional correctness, too. The fragile sensibilities and feelings of the most thin-skinned individuals are becoming the norm – and enshrined in law.

The confusion over the implementation of the OBA is that many police officers and sheriffs are still operating under the old ‘sectarian-racism’ framework and have not yet developed the emerging sensibility of policing offensiveness per se. But read the legislation carefully and you can see that the civil servants who developed the fine print are much more up to speed with the new desire for the state to protect ‘vulnerable groups’.

The likely outcome of this censorious trend is that these new ‘vulnerable groups’ will multiply, arguing for the trauma they personally experience to be validated. And legislators will, perhaps, begin to feel increasingly comfortable with restricting ’emotionally harmful’ songs, chants and symbols at football matches.

The policing of football fans will also impact on how the rest of us are treated in the future. The trend towards restricting hurtful, emotionally damaging words and behaviour has already taken root elsewhere. We all know we better watch what we say on Facebook now – just in case.

The need to stand up to this profoundly intolerant trend has never been more urgent. The first step must be to reject the idea that we need laws to stop people saying things we find offensive. If we disagree with someone’s words or behaviour, we should have the strength of character to challenge them directly. The alternative is to watch freedom of speech and expression become a thing of the past.

Stuart Waiton is a sociology and criminology lecturer at Abertay University in Dundee.

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Topics Politics


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