By Joseph Webster, Anthropologist of religion, Queen’s University Belfast

THE Offensive Behaviour at Football Act is a bad piece of legislation. It’s unenforceable, counterproductive, and unjustified on free speech grounds. Iain Macwhirter, writing in this newspaper, rightly points out that “being unkind isn’t a crime”. I made this same case to the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee.

The Billy Boys has some famously offensive lyrics, as do football chants which revel in the tragedy of the 1971 Ibrox disaster. But finding something offensive is not a good enough reason to make it illegal; such is the cost of a society which values freedom of expression more than freedom from offence. Yet, mass arrests of hundreds of Old Firm fans who will flout the Act during tomorrow’s match seems even less palatable. Thus, while free speech isn’t always pretty, it remains worthy of defence.

What if the case for repeal was made on different grounds? The Football Act should be scrapped because it completely fails to understand the social reality behind the behaviours it seeks to ban. The assumption of those who railroaded the legislation through Parliament is that football-related sectarianism is all about rivalry and a hatred of the other. But this completely ignores the equally important sectarian dynamics of solidarity and fraternity.

My research on Old Firm match days has revealed that the behaviours which the Act seeks to criminalise almost always occur either in the absence of rival fans (in supporters clubs), or where fans are already strictly segregated (in the stadium). Offensive behaviour at football is therefore an attempt to create intra-group cohesion and not inter-group rivalry. In shared spaces, as a result (on the streets or on public transport) such behaviours decrease dramatically. Offensive chanting is thus a collective performance engaged in by a group for themselves, as a demonstration of their own collective membership of that group.

Imagine two groups in the playground, readying themselves for a fight. Someone pushes to the front. He shuffles on the spot, barely moving forward an inch, while disingenuously hollering to his pals: “Hold me back! Hold me back!” His friends dutifully grab his outstretched arms, pulling him close, as he feigns to struggle against them. A few insults cross the battle lines, but soon the boys disperse. Not a single punch is thrown.

So it is with the vast majority of criminalised fans who, in reality, want nothing more than to be pulled back into the reassuring centre of their group. Their insults may be offensive but that is not their primary purpose. If it were, why would the strongest expressions of verbal sectarianism be offered in the absence of rival fans? And why would verbal sectarianism decrease so dramatically in shared public spaces, regardless of the presence or absence of police?

Tomorrow, as the Old Firm carnival unfolds, most Celtic and Rangers fans will not behave badly. Of those who will, these (mostly) young men will gather into (largely) homogenous and hermetically sealed groups to celebrate belonging to one of two tribes. They will shout and swear, sing vile songs, and unfurl insulting banners but they will do so primarily for their own benefit, to validate their tribe. What the other tribe is doing, both on and off the pitch, will be a sideshow to their own acts of collective affirmation.

The Football Act should be scrapped because it offers the wrong diagnosis: a diagnosis of acute, outward-looking, sectarian hate, when the real “condition” is actually chronic, inward-looking, self-absorption. Since we can’t legislate our way out of the problem of boorishness, perhaps the Debrett’s A-Z of Modern Manners might offer a better way forward?