Friday, 11 July 2014

The Man in the Mirror

The man in the mirror
Sometimes you get an interesting insight into the thought processes of others which can be quite enlightening. I attended a charity Sports Dinner a couple of years back at a Masonic Hall in Glasgow. The speakers were Tommy Gemmell, Willie Henderson and Bill McMurdo. The stories Gemmell and Henderson told about playing in that golden age of Scottish football were brilliantly funny, entertaining and gave some good insights into 1960s football. McMurdo, not being a footballer, relied on a more earthy approach which, while not being overtly sectarian, did pander a little to his perceived audience. During the interval I went to the bar and a chap in the queue smiled at me, ‘Great night Pal, eh?’ I nodded ‘Aye, great to hear those stories from the old days.’ The chap continued, ‘I know and it’s even better because we’re with our own folk, none of that mob here tonight.’ His cheerful demeanour changed when my brother approached to change the drinks order and used my name which happens to be Pat. The chap at the bar clamped up and avoided eye contact or conversation from that point onwards. There were also a couple of stony faced young men at our table that evening who said nothing all night and I was informed by their uncle in an almost jocular manner to ‘Never mind them, they just don’t like ‘Tims’ in the company.’ In fairness to the organisers of the event, the funds raised that night benefitted local schools, among them the local RC school so we can’t tar all of those present with the attitude of the chap at the bar or those at our table.  Such insights remind us of the powerful effect of tribalism and the conditioning process which encourages children to develop these attitudes.

As a teacher, I know the power of conditioning and use it in positive ways every day in class. We reward and praise those traits and behaviours we want to see develop (fairness, respect, hard work, etc.) and hopefully this can help minimise less positive behaviours and attitudes. Of course the home is the prime teacher of values and schools can only do so much if a child is subjected to stronger conditioning at home. I have struggled in the past to convince children that their embryonic prejudices about other groups in society are wrong and unhealthy. I may not have completely succeeded with them all but it is a teacher’s duty to challenge prejudice of any sort. In the case of those few people at the Sports dinner, they perhaps find comradeship with others and some form of social identity in such an exclusivist outlook to life but to limit your social interactions to ‘your own kind’ is surely unhealthy and makes life less interesting? 

There is a much told Celtic tale about prejudice which summed up the absurdity of such attitudes. A Celtic player came into the dressing room at half time in an away game and said to manager McGrory, ‘Oh Boss did you hear that crowd? Screaming at me that I’m a Fenian B****rd all through that half?’ McGrory tried to reassure him, ‘Don’t let that worry you, I get called that all the time.’ The player, one of many Protestants who have represented Celtic with such honour and distinction over the past 126 years replied, ‘Aye I know but you are one, I’m not!’

Of course no group is without its share of less enlightened members and it would be wrong to suggest that Celtic supporters are not subject to the same sorts of psychological conditioning which impacts on every other group in society and helps form attitudes and opinions. One of the key components of Celtic’s identity though was the feeling that the exclusivist employment practices they saw around them in Scottish society for much of their history were intrinsically unfair. Celtic could very easily have fallen into the ‘ghetto’ mentality of keeping to our ‘own kind’ but the founding generation correctly saw that football could help integrate the migrant community into the wider society. From ‘Sunny’ Jim Young in that early side through to John Thomson, Evans, Stein, Peacock, Gemmell, Auld, Dalglish, McGrain, Larsson and many more, Celtic have always maintained that a man’s ability as a player and character are more important than his background. When John Ure-Primrose became Chairman of Rangers FC in  1912 he led that particular club on a very different path and Scottish society is still dealing with the echoes of those days. Indeed Willie Maley in his book ‘The Story of Celtic’ marks out 1912 as the year things became more heated between Rangers and Celtic supporters. He cites the arrival of Belfast shipbuilders on the Clyde as having a role in this but even this cannot be seen out-with the wider context of the socio-political situation in the UK and Ireland. 1912 saw Edward Carson found the Ulster Volunteer Force designed to resist Irish home rule by force if necessary. It also saw Primrose, a man steeped in Unionist politics, take control of Rangers. They were different times, a different mind-set and while never excusing prejudice we should think as 21st Century people and not be chained to the past.

Much has been written in recent years about the exclusivist policy pursued by Rangers in those less enlightened times but the salient point for me is that when organisations as prominent as Rangers FC, run as they were by educated men, apply such ‘policies’, it gives tacit approval for the less well educated to espouse the sort of bigoted attitudes which blighted the lives of so many. That cultural conditioning of generations of Rangers fans must be viewed in the context of the club’s policy and it cannot be denied that the club did Scottish society a great disservice.  We thankfully live in more tolerant times although there is, and probably always will be, elements in every society who look for ‘others’ to blame for various ills.  Just as Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius once said that ‘poverty is the mother of crime’ so we may also conclude that ignorance, educated or otherwise, is the father of bigotry. It is up to us all to guard against it and try to ensure that the new generation of Scots growing up today are not asked to drink from this bitter cup.

So the new football season is almost upon us and no-doubt the invective will soon be flowing again as ancient rivalries are resumed. We often mistake the bitter rivalries in Scottish football as symptomatic of our clannish ways but having lived part of my life in England, I can assure you that the naked hatred between some clubs supporters there is as bad as anything the big two of Glasgow ever managed. I once attended a match between Liverpool and Manchester United and the atmosphere was poisonous. So as the football begins, enjoy the spectacle and enjoy too those rivalries which all sports need. We can be raucous and loud without resorting to hatred so think also of the youngsters around about you in the stadiums and show them the way real supporters act. If we’re ever going to blunt the sharp edge of prejudice then it starts as always with the man (or woman) we see in the mirror each day.

Come on you Bhoys in Green!


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