‘It is profoundly intolerant and authoritarian to expect words and chants to be policed’

Football fans’ rights campaigners Kevin Rooney and Stuart Waiton explain why they're fighting for the right to be offensive in football grounds.

I appreciate that there is a place for a bit of rudeness and banter at matches. Quite often, it’s more entertaining than what is happening on the pitch. But aren’t race and sectarian bigotry just a bit more serious than that? Given their history, they are not laughing matters, so why not say that racial or sectarian abuse is now unacceptable?

Tony Lawrence, UK

It may sound strange, but as far as I’m concerned there is no such thing as sectarianism in Scotland. I would go further and argue that there is actually no such thing as racism in English football. There is name calling, some of it not nice, but that should not be confused with racism. If people are really concerned about racism let them protest against immigration laws or join a protest against the detention of asylum seekers rather than anoint themselves as self-appointed guardians of what people can and cannot say at the football. While it may be in bad taste and downright disrespectful, there are no football chants I would ban, be they allegedly sectarian or racist. It doesn’t mean that I approve of them, but in the current climate I think it important to defend the right of fans to sing and shout what they want, no matter how obnoxious. Incidentally, in relation to campaigns in football, the politics of anti-racism and anti-sectarianism are much worse than so-called racism and sectarianism. KR

If you heard someone chanting ‘nigger, nigger, nigger’ at a football game what would you do? I imagine a smack in the face would be in order. So why should we tolerate people who chant ‘Fenian scum’ or ‘Yiddo cunts’? Please explain to me why insulting black people is worse than insulting Catholics or Jews… or maybe you WOULD tolerate someone chanting ‘nigger, nigger, nigger’? Surely not?

Abel Murray, Newcastle

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A Celtic lad did a monkey chant last year and got three months. A Rangers fan has just been given the same sentence (out on appeal) for an anti-Catholic chant. I don’t know either of them but suspect neither is a card-carrying racist or sectarian. Have a go, verbally, by all means, but I’m honestly more concerned about the people phoning the police on these individuals. If you want to challenge racism perhaps you could join an anti-racist movement in society. But wait a minute: there are none – only official anti-racist stewards, police and paid organisations, hanging around at football grounds. Perhaps this tells us that neither racism nor anti-racism is what it appears to be.

As it happens, Catholics are not and have not been an oppressed group in Britain for a very long time and the construction of them as ‘victims’ today is a depressing sign of what I call the ‘new sectarians’ – individuals and groups who campaign for special ‘offence’ status and phone the police when their ‘identity’ is insulted. As an aside, it is often the authorities and specifically the police and stewards who act on the behalf of the ‘offended’. Even the Anton Ferdinand case was kicked off by an off-duty police officer, illustrating the often top-down nature of this offence claiming.  SW

So you hear someone behind you at the match mouthing off offensive stuff. Do you:
a) turn round and tell them to behave and risk getting a punch in the mouth or being thrown out yourself;
b) ask your friendly steward to intervene knowing he has no choice but to call the big bad steward so the guy will be handed over to the cops;
c) shuffle in your seat and feel uncomfortable, at best murmuring to your neighbours that there are a lot of idiots around.

How do you get over the massive oversensitivity people have? I have often said that I think the away fans hissing at White Hart Lane is genuinely funny. Whilst some fans who say things considered racist today at the match might actually be casual racists in the week (but probably aren’t), the fans hissing at White Hart Lane are definitely not going round gassing Jews! But if I say this, people look at me open mouthed like I’m saying something outrageous. So we just get to an impasse where no rational debate is possible.

Hilary Salt, UK

I’ve been to a Sunderland away game at Everton and a Rangers game at Ibrox recently and the only ‘offensive’ chant I heard was a song wishing the Newcastle player Steven Taylor was dead – which seemed entirely reasonable to me. If these games (and the games I watch on TV) are anything to go by the art of offending your opposition seems to have taken a nose dive. I go to games wanting to have a verbal battle with the opposition with the knowledge that this will not lead to me or them literally killing (or even wishing the killing – or death) of other people – despite what is said. So I agree, there is a problem that words - especially words at a football game, where being offensive to the opposition is often the point - are taken to be far to (almost mystically) serious today: ‘Your support is fucking shit’ the Sunderland fans shouted at the Everton fans who hadn’t made a sound until the seventy-sixth minute when they scored (this was less an insult than a statement of fact). Words are not weapons – but today they are treated as if they are more significant than actual violence. This is a serious problem, way beyond football, which has extremely dangerous repercussions for any supposedly free and democratic society. SW

A few months ago, I watched a game at Birmingham City. Behind me was a large family group. Young and old, they spent the entire game in pointless, humourless abuse of the opposition. I was in no position to start an argument with them - I was greatly outnumbered. But isn’t there a place for some ‘ground rules’ about behaviour that could otherwise spoil the very event you came to see?

Gavin Farmer, UK

Often much of the banter at football games is pointless and humourless abuse of the opposition. It can be a nuisance and annoying, but it is a price worth paying. The alternative, today, is that those in power get to regulate what we can and can’t say; what T-shirts we wear, what banners we are allowed to wave, where and when we are allowed to drink and when we have to sit down etc. I would want to bend the stick towards allowing people to say and do what they want at football matches, even when they are a pain.

Of course, there always has been and continues to be an informal and organic set of mores that govern what fellow fans deem acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. The problem today is that that informal process is being increasingly eroded in favour of an external imposition on fans, restricting, ever further, what they can and can’t do at the football. At the core of this external imposition is a prejudice that sees many fans as a potential threat and a public-order incident waiting to happen. KR

I know what you mean by ‘90-minute bigots’, but isn’t there something more to fans’ lack of PC and their willingness to insult others? Isn’t it also because they are so removed from the rarefied worlds of media, politics and the academy, and thus have very different moral values and different ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable speech? Also, what explains the determination to change the way they speak? Why are some people so madly obsessed with making fans talk in a more ‘acceptable’ way?

Jools Heywood, Middlesex

It’s true that most of the fans who attend football games originally came from or still come from working-class communities and had a sort of ‘rough and ready’ attitude when it came to football banter. This is not to romanticize the working class; it is simply stating a fact. Likewise, there has always been a section of the chattering classes who held a prejudice against what they perceived as boorish, vulgar football fans. What’s new is that this prejudice is now effectively being enshrined into new laws which lock up football supporters because certain politicians, judges, police men and so called anti-sectarian and anti-racist groups don’t like what they sing. Let’s be clear, what we are witnessing is young guys, as young as 13, being banned from football grounds indefinitely (eg, last week’s case of the young Millwall fan) and young Celtic and Rangers fans being imprisoned simply because certain people of a certain disposition find their lyrics distasteful.

Football is being used as a moral tool by politicians and certain groups to project their model of how one must behave and relate to one another, and those who fail to adhere to these new codes of conduct are now fair game. KR

John Stuart Mill argued that freedom to express opinion was an essential requirement for the full development of the individual and to the common recognition of truth in society. Yet, in Waiton’s analysis in Snobs’ Law, there are no real sectarian opinions among football fans in Scotland; on the contrary, at football games, any ‘sectarian’ songs or chanting represent nothing more than 90 minutes of adult pantomime. The question arises then: is defence of free speech an appropriate way to frame objections to the Scottish Government’s anti-sectarianism drive?

Donncha Marron, UK

I don’t think football chanting can be thought of as a ‘freedom of speech’ issue as there is no debate or even opinion necessarily being expressed. You can use it as shorthand, but football chanting is just that – chanting – rather than speaking. I tend to think of it more in terms of ‘behaviour’ and the freedom to behave in a way that is not harmful to people. In this respect, Mill’s harm principle still fits. If you don’t like what people say and how they behave at games challenge them about it – but it is profoundly intolerant and authoritarian to expect these words and chants to be policed. SW

Is there a danger that campaigners like you are setting up a false distinction between ‘real’ football fans (ie, the ones who get rowdy and chant lewd things) and ‘fake’ football fans (ie, posh-boy entryists and middle-class annoyances)? Isn’t it just possible that lots of the traditional football fans, who have been going to the game for decades, also hate vile chanting? They aren’t snobs, are they?

Max Staunton, Essex

Ironically those who campaigned for ‘real fans’ in the 1990s, opposing the bourgeoisification of football and all that, also campaigned against ‘incorrect’ song singing, with subjects from racism to the Munich Air Disaster. So there doesn’t appear to be much difference between them and the cultural commentators who are outraged by offensiveness of all kinds. I also tend to find that ‘traditional football fans’ (ie, older fans) are a bit confused by the whole offensiveness thing and use terms like ‘water off a ducks back’ (as John Barnes also described his experience). On the other hand, also in my experience, people who go on about ‘vile’ chanting have a more vile view of people than the ‘vile’ chanters.  SW

The idea of the 90-minute bigot is all well and good, but where is the line to be drawn? Outside the stadium? In the matchday pubs? On fans’ messageboards and Twitter accounts? Or are people entitled to be 90-minute bigots all the time?

Guy Seigneur, UK

I don`t draw a line when it comes to words. My only distinction is between words and actions. Fans have the right to be 90-minute bigots all the time. It is called football rivalry. Moral entrepreneurs need to chill out and not take football insults so seriously. Otherwise they invent problems where none exist.  In my view, fans have the right to sing and abuse each other and generally be offensive. To be frank, abusing opposition fans and players is a key part of the craic around football. Of course, if your model of the average fan is not of a thick-skinned, robust individual but rather of a thin-skinned, vulnerable person in need of protection, then we have a problem because you would see edgy songs and chants as not just offensive but as damaging.

However, the problem today is that the criteria for what is now deemed ‘offensive’ and ‘hurtful’ is ever expanding and increasingly a matter of criminal law. In a context where, for example, saying the word ‘Hun’ as an insult to Rangers fans or displaying it on a banner can land one in jail, it is no good trying to demarcate acceptable and unacceptable speech because you are on a slippery slope to having your traditional slogans demonised and then criminalised. It is only a matter of time before the football ‘thought police’ take issue with the next phrase or chant. If you don`t believe me, just ask the Yid Army at Spurs. KR

There are too many women and children attending football games these days and that’s one of the reason all us fans are expected to be well-behaved, tight-lipped bores. Discuss.

James Shaugnessy, Dublin

I think there is a small degree of truth in this, however the woman who sits two seats away from me at Celtic Park is as foul mouthed as they come and one of the biggest opponents of the demonisation and criminalisation of football fans. The real drive emanates from many of those in positions of power and influence who see football grounds and online communications as one of the last areas where fans can exercise a large degree of freedom, spontaneity and passion. Rather than welcome this, these elites see such behaviour as a potential threat. Consequently, they want to regulate, control, censor and force football fans into a sanitised form of constant compliance and conformity - much like people are expected to behave nowadays in every other walk of life, unfortunately. KR

With the announcement that a bronze statue has been commissioned to honour 1970s black footballers Cyrille Regis, Brendan Batson and the late Laurie Cunningham (West Bromwich Albion’s so-called ‘Three Degrees’), is there a danger that today the players will be remembered more for the racist abuse they endured rather than their footballing achievements?

Niall Crowley, UK

It’s perhaps even more worrying than that as it reconstructs these players, who gave two fingers to racist chants while smashing the ball into the net (especially in Cyrille’s case). It also degrades what anti-racism used to be about, changing a battle for equality against oppression, inequality and state violence into an issue of being called names by the hoi polloi at football games.  SW

In my experience, fans take great delight in seeing rival fans arrested for singing offensive chants. Particularly in Scotland, Old Firm fans take delight in telling on each other, and fans of other Scottish teams are often keen to see sectarianism as an Old Firm problem which they want stamped out of football in any way possible – even when such steps could later come back to bite them. To what extent do you find that football rivalries make it difficult to get fans to work together in opposing the kind of legislation you campaign about?             

Craig Fairnington, UK

It’s true that fans do take great delight in seeing rival fans arrested for singing offensive chants. It’s well documented that Celtic and Rangers fans watch videos of each other’s games with stop watches and trawl supporter’s websites in order to report each other to the authorities. This is a trend that I predicted in my submission in 2010 to the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament when they were considering views prior to the introduction of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act. The arrival of this new law has indeed made things much worse. In effect, it has become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

There is no denying that trying to unite Celtic and Rangers fans in a campaign of opposition to the above law was and is not easy. However, all is not lost. For example, I have been pleasantly surprised by the fairly large numbers of Celtics fans who have contacted me in support of the article I wrote on spiked in defence of the young Rangers supporter, Connor McGhie, who was given a prison sentence for singing a ‘Fuck the Pope’ song. KR

Kevin Rooney is a teacher based in London.

Stuart Waiton is a sociology and criminology lecturer at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland, a director of Generation Youth Issues and founder of Take a Liberty (Scotland).

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