Community Experiences of Sectarianism

This study explored community experiences and perceptions of sectarianism, based on in-depth qualitative research within five case study communities across Scotland. The insights obtained provide depth and context to other research about sectarianism, including quantitative survey and national criminal offending data.

9. Jokes and banter

9.1 Many participants emphasised that the context of potentially sectarian speech is as important as the textual meaning. Much of the phenomenon of sectarianism in everyday Scottish culture is located in the context of talk, text and song.

9.2 In most of the interviews and focus groups we discussed jokes and banter. Kehily and Nayak (1997) have written about how humour is used to create and police hierarchies, and as a regulatory technique. The use of humour normalises issues and makes them acceptable to talk about. Sometimes this can be positive, because topics that are not spoken about are given some public consideration; on the other hand, when dealing with a problem that is as politically challenging as sectarianism, humour offers people additional space to engage in sectarian discourse while justifying it by saying 'oh it was only a joke'. This is the plausible deniability that many racism researchers have addressed.[14]

9.3 Not all of our participants talked about hearing or participating in jokes or banter relating to sectarianism but many had some experience of this either directly or through overhearing others engaging in such behaviour. Some participants felt somewhat distanced from sectarian humour and banter:

... because I'm not kind of well aligned with either side or anything like that, I'm just not really involved in it, I just hear about it as banter from other people who are seemingly not involved in it so I don't know how diluted what I'm hearing is from what actually happens I imagine.
(Woman, interview 2, Glasgow)

9.4 Others rejected the significance of possibly sectarian humour because they saw it as being connected to football and/or drinking culture:

Local football, not a problem. Dundee, Dundee United, same street, same time. And that is really not a problem. Again my other half is from the other side of the street, I don't know how we got married haha. But yeah, it is banter, you go to the pub before the game, you all go down the road together. It doesnae work out like we separate ourselves, you can walk down the road and go into the same pub and have a few beers. Walk down the road to the football grounds and then just go to different doors. And then when you come out you just meet up again. And it is banter, it is no' any ... it is nothing but banter.
(Woman, interview 3, Dundee)

9.5 A second group of participants tended to argue that engaging in the use of sectarian jokes and banter was acceptable at certain times in specific circumstances while also making it clear that there were places and times when it was completely unacceptable to participate in such behaviour. For these participants, the acceptability or not of using jokes and banter tended to depend on whether or not it was between friends, and whether it was said gently and in jest rather than aggressively or angrily. The context of sectarian speech is as important as the textual meaning.

9.6 One participant, for example, said that 'jokes and humour can be a way of informing and so on, but I think at times they can be quite nasty' and another said 'well sometimes jokes and banter it's good, but sometimes they can be … very hurtful and mean, you know.' (Man, Interview 5, N Lanarkshire) The three participants below reflect on the use of humour: the first makes it clear that the use of aggression, for them, makes a joke more sectarian, and the second and third reflect on the difference between banter between friends compared to using humour with someone they have only recently met:

Umm ... well I think ... I think like I was saying earlier the way that people how they mean it. You know if they were saying a joke, if they were meaning it aggressively then I say that would be more sectarian. But if I were to say a sectarian joke, but if I was saying it in a jokey way, I wouldn't see that as bad. But if I was shouting at someone or I was trying to hurt someone or annoy someone, I would see that as kind of more sectarian.
(Man, Interview 9, Western Isles)

I am not sure because obviously I have got a few friends who are of different religions and different ethnic groups and that, but we have joked around and joked away and it all depends on how good friends you are with them. Because obviously they are saying the same to us and vice-versa but at the end of the day it is banter but ...
(Man, Interview 7, Western Isles)

Ehm I think there is a fine line like, like I've never been, I've tried not to cross that line but obviously with friends and stuff it's different and you can have a lot more banter. I would never, I would never cross that line with someone I'd just met.
(Man, Interview 7, Edinburgh)

9.7 During a focus group in Edinburgh, one of the participants pointed out that if banter adopts a dictatorial tone - and therefore works to tell people how to live their lives - then this makes it more inappropriate to engage in. This was met with agreement by those in the group:

When people are telling you how to live your life that's probably the point where I would say 'oh go and do whatever you want but I am not having anything to do with you'. If people are telling you how to live your life, that is no way to get on. In that case I think you should believe what you believe and don't change just because someone wants you to change.
(Woman, Focus Group 1, Edinburgh)

9.8 Some participants were eager to point out that jokes and banter could be particularly problematic when used on social media or online because of the multiple and complex ways that different people may interpret the tone and meaning of any comments:

... a lot of a joke is about how you tell it, it's not what you say and so I struggle to see how online you could distinguish between a statement of fact and something that was supposed to be either ironic or sarcastic or you know. Because how else do you know, you can't put tone into you know a Facebook post or something or a tweet, whereas coming across in person it's very easy to tell whether somebody is joking or whether they're seriously making a statement that they believe in because I almost think that's kind of what jokes are all about.
(Man, Interview 5, Edinburgh)

9.9 In contrast to the participants we have quoted so far, a small proportion of those involved in the research adopted a firm line when it came to using humour in relation to sectarianism. One participant notes that 'I haven't experienced that myself, but I have been quite firm about not letting it happen at all.' And, another participant argued that 'I think it's not a thing to put into jokes unless the joker is laughing at them both equally ...' and then pointed out how difficult this would be:

The fact of sectarianism, the fact of them getting all done up in their outfits and sashes and thinking that they were going to offend the ones at the other side, it would take a very clever comic to do that but anything that is done from one point of view is that is sectarian offensive and might be thought to deserve a slap in the face.
Woman, Interview 2, Edinburgh)

9.10 Most of those who participated in the research felt that there was a point where jokes and banter became unacceptable; in other words, there comes a point when the 'line is crossed.' For some participants the boundaries of acceptability were very flexible, however for others, 'there is a very fine line'. When asked where a line is crossed into sectarian humour, participants often focused on exclusion. Consider the views of these participants:

You know, when humour is designed to be exclusive, then I have got a problem with it. And you can tell, you can tell when a joke is being inclusive and it's being exclusive. It's like somebody telling a dirty joke, it can be really dirty and really funny or it can be really misogynistic and you know the difference. And it is the same with anything that might be about religion. You can laugh at jokes about Ian Paisley or you can laugh at jokes about Pope John Paul, you know when they are being inclusive and when they are being exclusive.
(Man, Interview 5, Glasgow)

Yeah, I have come across a fair bit of sort of, yeah, jokes and banter. And I suppose it is difficult to judge the impact of that, and where it becomes less funny. Because people do use it a lot, and then it becomes less funny when it reaches sort of another stage I suppose when there is a minority of people present, or if you think that the jokes and banter themselves are being used to sort of justify a particular way of being or a point of view.
(Woman, Interview 1, Western Isles)

9.11 Using humour as a means of regulation relates to discussions of hierarchy and power; this arose occasionally in the interviews, as we discuss in the chapter on sectarianism and the powerful.


Email: Linzie Liddell

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