An alarming story I spotted at the weekend, but forgot to mention: ‘Alarm’ at cross player’s caution. The Celtic goal-keeper Artur Boruc was cautioned by police for causing a breach of the peace, after he made overtly Catholic religious gestures at the stauchly protestant Ibrox Stadium. He crossed himself, in the theatrical ‘spectacles-testicles-wallet-and-watch’ manner, so beloved of Catholics everywhere.
The argument for Boruc’s culpability here comes from the idea that he almost certainly knew what effect his gestures would have. They were not done innocently, but were intented to annoy the Rangers fans. It is a worrying decision for many reasons, I think we would do well to remember many of the debates that surrounded the Danish Mohammed cartoons affair in February – another controversy over symbolism, intent, and interpretation.
The most important debate then, as now, did not so much revolve around the ‘meaning’ of the symbol itself. In both cases, we agree that it is at least possible for symbols that one group find offensive, to considered benign or even sacred by another. No-one can define the symbol positively or negatively for everyone – people just have subjective responses. We only become concerned with the matter when one person (or newspaper) seeks to deliberately incite such responses in others. Then we ask whether they have a right to do so, balancing freedom of speech considerations with public order.
In the case of the cartoons published in the Jyllands Posten, the consensus (it seemed to me) settled with the importance of freedom of speech. The right to offend was rightly trumpeted. Those who did have a negative reaction were labelled as intolerant. Certainly, said the blogosphere, the secular ideals of freedom of speech trump the traditions of a religious group, especially when the issue concerns criticism of that group. The government seemed to agree, and those who over-reacted were arrested.
In this latest, analagous case however, the opposite has happened, and it is the provocateur who has been punished. I think this is wrong for a couple of reasons. First, I might say that banter between the home and away teams is part of any game of football. The home fans shout jibes at the opposition, while at the other end the players of the team they support are receiving a similar treatment from the visiting fans. Sometimes the banter works, and a player is put off his game. At other times the player responds, and riles the opposing fans some more. Being annoyed by players from other teams is, I would suggest, a part of the game. It is certainly a big part of being a dedicated fan. Furthermore, Boruc’s contribution was not racist or deprecating to the Ranger’s fans themselves. It was an overt gesture of his own faith which pissed them off. He should be allowed to do it, just as they shout rude things about the Pope in return, as they invariably are wont to do when Celtic visit Ibrox.
Is it not appalling that the Ranger’s fans could get so offended by the crossing gesture in the first place? The real issue here is that the rampant sectarianism still exists, and the punishment of Boruc in a way condones the mutual intolerance between the Catholics and Protestants in Scotland.
If the thuggery of sectarianism is our first concern, the second is how different groups are treated when the hackles of the extremists among them are raised. When violence between Christians occurs, we say that it is a social problem, a feature of urban living. No suggestion is made that the problem may be a flaw in the religion itself, that the policy of “multiculturalism” has failed, or that one of the two groups should radically change its thinking… or leave. But this is precisely what happens when the troublemakers are Muslim. Moreover, there are more Protestants and Catholics in the UK than there are Muslims. If Islamic extremism is such a threat to the unity of this country, then sectarianism is too. And since it manifests itself most overtly during football matches – those weekly beacons of the British way of life – it has a greater impact on the wider culture, than the Islamic lobby could ever have. Yet it occupies our thoughts to a lesser degree. Its easier to demonise those beared weirdos in sheets, than it is to criticise the guy in a football who uses sport to teach his sons how to hate.