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.

4 Talking about sectarianism

4.1 In this and the next few chapters, we set out the main themes that emerged.

The discursive deficit

4.2 One thing that quickly became clear was that many of the participants were not used to discussing sectarianism, and a few were unsure what the term meant. Below is how the first focus group (a group of people aged 18-24 in Edinburgh) began:

Facilitator: The first thing I want to ask about sectarianism is: are there any words or images that you associate with sectarianism?

F1: I don't know what it means.

M1: I'm not ... I am going to put my hand up, I don't know what it means. [Laughs]

F2 : Like part of the conflict that's between religion, Protestant, Catholic, between the obvious ones, Protestants and Catholics, and their conflict between them? [unclear mumbled addition]

M2: One which history definitely, I think ... One historical sectarian conflict I can really point to is the conflict between Christians and Jews.

4.3 We encountered several such examples. During an interview in the Western Isles, the participant told a story about protecting an English tourist from abuse. He then said: 'Is that the sort of the thing you want to hear? [...] I don't really know what sectarianism is you see, so ...' He later added: 'I looked at it last night on the net. I have never thought about it until I spoke to you.'
(Man, Interview 3, Western Isles).

4.4 A Glasgow participant had previously been a member of an Orange Lodge. When asked to comment on claims that the Orange Order was 'sectarian', however, she said: 'Em ... I maybe don't know what that word means ...'
(Woman, Focus Group 1, Glasgow).

4.5 An Edinburgh interviewee kept using the word 'anti-sectarianism' to mean sectarianism, and explained:

I've never really used the word. I actually have to keep pausing before I say it to you, because for some reason I almost want to keep calling it anti-Semitism ... because that's something that comes up, you know in, like the news and stuff, that's like a phrase that you would hear, but I just never, you never hear it. You never hear anyone say 'anti-sectarianism'.
(Man, Interview 5, Edinburgh)

4.6 This sense of unfamiliarity with the term 'sectarianism' came up often throughout the project. The word sectarianism is a common term in media discourse.[5] It was not however something our participants seemed familiar with talking about - in many cases even when describing personal experiences - and this included people from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. Frequently, they appeared to cast around for a vocabulary to discuss sectarianism and the ways that it affects both their own lives and those of people they know.

4.7 The word 'sectarianism' had the effect at times of interrupting the discussion among participants. This was not simply because of its negative connotations: it seems that this may be a word that does not invoke folk meanings and lay understandings easily. We have not encountered this to the same extent when carrying out fieldwork about racism. It may be that some people are more accustomed to using the term 'racism' in everyday discourse than they are as regards the word 'sectarianism'.

4.8 Typically, we opened the discussions by focusing initially on questions about interviewees' family religion or perceptions of community religion, which was a more productive way into deeper discussions about sectarianism.

The absence of a problem?

4.9 Several possible explanations for this unfamiliarity with the term 'sectarianism' came up during the research. For some, there was no local problem to be concerned about. An example appears in a focus group in Dundee, about half and half split between participants with Catholic and Protestant backgrounds:

Facilitator: Do, do you think first of all that sectarianism is a problem in your area or Dundee itself?

Participant: No ...
Participant: Nope.
Participant: No.

Facilitator: Okay, so is that, is that a round no?

Participant: That is definitely no.
(Women, Focus Group 1, Dundee)

4.10 Another interviewee in Dundee, unable to think of any examples of different forms of sectarianism in response to the interviewer's questions, said apologetically:

I've painted an awfy glossy picture, though. I am trying to think of something, if there was an incident, but I seriously cannae think of one. I really cannae think of ... anything at all, incident, sectarianism-wise ...
(Woman, Interview 6, Dundee)

4.11 Others thought it possible that it might happen locally, but never witnessed it themselves. An Edinburgh interviewee struggled to remember any experiences:

I guess it kinda comes down to what I was talking about that whole feeling of being quite removed from places like here, and how it does feel like something that happens in other places, and yet I imagine it does, it is relevant in places here, and so ... and that's the thing, I think I live in my little middle class bubble and don't support a football team ehm.
(Woman, Interview 4, Edinburgh)

4.12 Some had rarely encountered sectarian language. One first heard the word 'Tims',[6] used in that case to mean 'Catholic', from an English friend:

Participant: ... so I used the expression 'Roman Church' and he obviously clocked that as meaning I was against it, and he says ... eh ... 'what, you mean Tims?' I says 'What?' and he says 'Tims'. And I says 'I don't know what they are' and I had never heard the expression before in my life. Eh, and I'm sure there are lots more expressions that I have not heard either, but I think it's indicative that some of the insults that are common currency in the whole sectarianism thing are not universal, there are lots of communities that just aren't aware of them ...

Interviewer: And how old were you when this happened?

Participant: Sorry?

Interviewer: And how old were you when this happened? I'm just interested to see.

Participant: Oh I was in my mid-40s.

Interviewer: And you had never heard the term?

Participant: No.
(Man, Interview 8, Western Isles)

Lack of awareness

4.13 The simple absence of a problem is one explanation, and should not be dismissed. Other explanations however are possible and might fit some of the stories we heard.

4.14 Social psychologist Susan Fiske (1993) has found that the powerful are inattentive to the individual experiences of those who are less powerful. Denial that sectarianism takes place can be made easier, too, by what sociologist Cheshire Calhoun (1989) calls 'motivated ignorance'.[7] People are motivated to deflect their attention from their own and their social group's discriminatory behaviour, so the boundary between conscious denial and impeded awareness is blurred
(Hodson and Esses 2002).

4.15 Some of our participants pointed to examples of this. A Western Isles interviewee who had worked for some years in the Central Belt observed that it was difficult for an observer to tell when football banter was light-hearted humour and when it was deeper religiously-motivated mockery:

Participant: ... they of course are the last people who would consider themselves to be bigots [laughs].

Interviewer: Right, why would you say the last people who would…?

Participant: Well I think in most cases bigots never see themselves as being a bigot.
(Man, interview 2, Western Isles)

4.16 Another reason for being unaware of the prevalence of sectarianism is the declining visibility of religion in everyday life. Theologian David Fergusson (2009: 123) has said, about commentators who discount religion's importance as a source of conflict, that 'Ironically, this may be fuelled by secular incomprehension of religion, which assumes that it cannot be so important as to motivate people in this way.' They assume that 'it simply masks an underlying cause such as poverty, lack of education, or loss of status.'

4.17 The term 'secular incomprehension' is also mentioned by another religion researcher in the context of English society, where Protestant hostility to Catholicism has declined, to be replaced by a puzzlement about, sometimes antagonism towards, traditionalist religion, among the growing numbers of people who no longer identify with such ways of life.[8] This again may have fewer opportunities to come to the surface. In an Edinburgh focus group, one young woman who no longer considered herself Catholic said:

Participant: I haven't actually experienced anything. But it's just like ... A lot of people that I know are just like ... probably, don't really know ... I don't think a lot of people know that I've been baptised and they won't judge it, unless they knew. I've usually kept that quite quiet, so as. Like if they were Catholic then it would be quite different, obviously.

Interviewer: And are you aware of anything happening to people you know that are more openly or obviously Catholic?

Participant: No-one that I know personally is openly Catholic. To be honest. I think a lot of people who are Catholic probably do keep it semi-quiet in case they do get it like being abused or anything. Just for being Catholic.

4.18 Lastly, normalisation was an important theme that often came up and one that we will consider later in this report. For instance, we heard from individuals who said that they never encountered sectarianism, but then went on to describe quite developed strategies for avoiding what we would regard as sectarian activity in their community. They spoke about this as so ordinary that they did not describe this avoidance behaviour as a diversion from their normal social life. Some of the avoidance strategies directly described within interviews ranged from turning one's back on a march or parade perceived as sectarian, altering a regular walking route so as to avoid sectarian flash points such as pubs and clubs, or concealing one's clothing or religious identity in conversation.

Social indifference

4.19 One of the difficulties in researching prejudice and bigotry is that strong prejudices are easiest to identify, but it is not just these which can have a negative impact on others. Overt sectarianism is relatively easy to recognise. Low-level hostility is also somewhat recognisable. A particularly difficult set of circumstances confront the researcher, though, when what is happening is 'social indifference'.

4.20 The majority groups in Scotland are those who are white, born into a Protestant heritage, born in Scotland, and English-speaking. Listening to our participants, we got the impression that some people, despite not being Protestant-born or Scots-born, are able to mesh with these identities without very much difficulty. This may be because many Scots (whatever their background) regard the differences as unimportant, or it may be that some Scots regard those particular differences as having some significance, but not feel strongly enough about this to look out for clues pointing to them.

4.21 If the subtle markers are rarely spoken about, even in private conversation, most members of the majority groups in those social spaces may not recognise that a person is, for instance, Catholic-born, or born outwith Scotland. So, most of the majority may not actively look for markers of difference, and may be ignorant of what the markers mean. This 'social indifference' may be harmless if the other group does not experience any prejudice or bigotry, but it is problematic if the result is that prejudice is being ignored or is invisible to the dominant social group. (This of course can also happen in situations where it is the Protestant-born or Scots-born who are the minority.)

One participant said, after some thought, "I think I am aware of people telling me about things that I haven't personally experienced" (Woman, Interview 5, Dundee). She could not however remember what they were.

4.22 Claims about such ignorance of the meaning of these markers are sometimes met with disbelief by Scots with more experience of troubled histories, where markers of faith such as saying either 'chapel' (Catholic) or 'church' (Protestant) are acutely detected. Attending some football games with a parent also exposes people to sectarian terminology that has become 'part of the lexicon of Scottish football', as one focus group member described it. So, to some Scots who are very familiar with what these subtle markers mean, it seems implausible that there are others who are unaware.

4.23 But the invisibility of these markers to some participants appeared to be a genuine phenomenon. In such social spaces, people from a minority religious background who attended a non-denominational school, for instance, may be well-used to successfully 'passing' and may lead quite different lives from those for whom their religious affiliation is more overt. Hence, social indifference may hide a problem, or suggest that there is no problem. It is not easy to work out which.

The 'silent topic'

4.24 An example of this 'discursive deficit', where sectarianism is rarely spoken about, is clear in this quote from an interviewee living on a social housing estate in the North Lanarkshire case study. As part of a wider discussion about sectarianism and crime, he spoke about local crime in his area but could not think of any sectarian incidents that had happened, nor that he had heard about:

Interviewer: What about your family and friends? Do you think they have ever experienced sectarianism? Have they ever spoke to you about it or mentioned any incidents?

Participant: Not directly no, I have not, I have not, but it is one of those topics that obviously you don't discuss, it is just something that is not really discussed unless it is on the news, and then you will have a discussion while you eat your dinner. But it is not something that is really discussed.
(Man, Interview 2, N Lanarkshire)

4.25 When asked if it affects his town, he said:

Oh aye, I would say it does. It certainly affects it the same way you have got ... I suppose it can affect any sort of town. But not so much that it affects things at the surface of that, if that makes sense.

... You know it exists, it is just not something that is brought to the surface, but you know if you go to certain pubs or certain company ... But it is usually said in a pub environment, you won't usually hear people chatting about it in the bloody Starbucks or elsewhere or whatever ... It is certainly evident in places, but it is more like the silent topic is probably a good way to describe it in certain aspects.

4.26 Another participant described encountering abuse in the pub where she worked:

They are predominantly Rangers supporters and then they found out I was a Catholic. 'Oh you f*cking Catholic ...!' Well first of all they started like 'Oh hey honey how are you doing?' and all that, and they were getting chatting away. Then it got into the usual conversation, 'what team do you support?' And I made the biggest mistake in saying oops ... And they were like 'Ohh you are f*cking, you smelly Fenian!' and that kind of stuff. But then in the next breath they said 'aw we are only joking' and stuff like that. 'Oh what are you doing the night?' And that sort of, but, they were arseholes, basically.
(Woman, Interview 3, N Lanarkshire)

4.27 As often seemed to be the case in the stories we were told, the woman in the second quote above did not appear to have discussed the incident with anyone before telling us about it: she had no complete story to tell and did not remember how the incident had ended. Asked by the interviewer 'how did you feel?', she said 'I think I told them to "get to f*ck!" or something. I would have definitely, I wouldn't have stood and took it.'

Media homogenisation

4.28 One result of this discursive deficit may be a lack of interest in - even resistance to - taking ownership of the problem of sectarianism in one's own community. When people do not talk to each other about their experiences, then sectarianism is always 'over the water' or 'down the road'. This is a serious problem for initiatives tackling sectarianism that seek community support.

4.29 One contribution from an Edinburgh interviewee (who grew up in the Highlands) however casts a different light on this. She felt that discussing sectarianism as if it is present in the same way throughout Scotland is something that actively spreads 'the poison': she referred in particular to cultural output such as comedies that, by presenting scenarios in which people are behaving in sectarian ways, have the effect of teaching listeners to be sectarian. It is not that the humour is sectarian in the sense of being anti-Catholic or anti-Protestant, nor that it is showing approval of this. Rather, by unthinkingly presenting an image of Scotland in which it seems normal that Scots are sectarian, the humour is actively extending the territory within Scotland in which sectarianism is normal.

4.30 She was critical not only of casual media representation of sectarianism in Scotland, but even some purportedly anti-sectarian representations. She felt that young people were learning to identify sectarianism as a Scottish problem because of media representations rather than transmission through their own community. Recognising themselves as Scottish, they then perversely identified sectarian distinctions (such as green or blue clothes) as something to adopt, being part of the national character.

4.31 She made her point through a discussion of BBC Scotland:

It shouldnae be called the BBC Scotland, it should be called BBC Glasgow - just the centre of Glasgow and just the mouthy people - because they don't know that everybody disnae have Catholic and Protestant problems ... it broadcasts to Shetland and Galloway but it assumes that attitudes, aspects and experiences in the centre of Glasgow are what everybody experiences and by talking aboot it or referring to it often in comic cuts or in not necessarily always in news reports and things, in all sorts of other ways and it just seeps into the fabric and things that you hear in the BBC because you do imagine it still comes with a bit of authority and correctness. So I do believe that our media, almost all centred in Glasgow, a few in Edinburgh, are making this worse, not just by the way that they when they're conscious that they're reporting it, but when they're just talking about it in general so it's in other contexts. It spreads. They're not conscious they're spreading it but people are hearing it and they think 'oh that must be right'.

4.32 She then spoke to the interviewer about how hard it is to estimate how prevalent sectarianism is, or is not:

In day to day life it doesn't touch me but I am sure it is for a good number of people in Edinburgh, I wouldn't know what percentage ... It's like dye in water, it just sort of spreads and it's no' countable.
(Woman, Interview 2, Edinburgh)

4.33 The dominant narrative about sectarianism is about its unique Scottishness, but most societies have some inter-religious conflict, as can be seen in the academic literature on Catholic and Protestant conflicts in several Western nations. It is not the task of this report to estimate how much or how little sectarianism there is in Scotland, and whether this is unusual or not. (An estimate of prevalence is available in Hinchliffe (2015)). What this chapter illustrates instead is how unused some Scots are to talking about 'sectarianism' in everyday life - even when it is their own experience.


Email: Linzie Liddell

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