By John DC Gow

When it comes to helping end sectarianism in Scotland we need more tolerance. This may seem an obvious and banal point, but the tolerance I am asking for is different from what often happens in practice. Too many who say they are against sectarianism are simply preaching their own ideology from an ivory tower. For some, anti-sectarianism has become a way to differentiate themselves or their group from ‘the other’ so that they are seen to be morally superior, and those they berate as inferior. This, I suggest, is only another form of ‘them and us’ bigotry. You cannot end stereotypes with more stereotypes.

Many of those who are called sectarian because of the groups they belong to, ideas they hold, or songs they sing at football, are not evil or actively trying to be bigoted. The truth is that most of us hold core beliefs which we feel define us, and when they are challenged (often rightly) it sometimes causes internal panic and anger. This core belief can take many forms including religion, nationalism, politics, and in Scotland we have football which bizarrely tries to mix them all.

 In the same way fish have no idea they swim in water, most people are unaware their views are not the clear glass of objective reality, but the distorted prism of their own perspective which includes personal and historical bias. None of us are immune from this imperfect thinking (including me) since we are all struggling to understand the complex world which we have been dropped into. It is only a matter of degree how flawed any of us are in how we see things.

 When fighting sectarianism, real tolerance should not only try to change minds, but also learn to genuinely accept those minds which are not changed. This means allowing strong opinions or partisanship which we dislike or even find abhorrent - as long as those ideas are not forced upon us, or incite violence. We can still defend and promote our religion (or lack of it), political party, national identity and football team while fervently disagreeing with others. It's always vital to remember that our ideological disagreements are less important than the flesh-and-blood human being opposite us.

There are also situations where this expression of views is not permissible; where it may cross a moral line or break the law. In this case it is important and nearly always more productive to explore why someone believes something bigoted and attempt dialogue than to condemn alone. This is not a call for 'do-gooder' naiveté, but showing those who slip into bigotry how their identity can be expressed positively, often leading to genuine breakthroughs.  

Even many of those who despise bigotry don’t understand that sectarianism won’t stop when religious differences end, national flags are lowered, or Rangers and Celtic fans disappear. Bigotry will be gone when different religions, nationalisms and football fans express their unique identity with joy and no-one cares because it doesn't try to attack another. The goal should be for the rich and colourful tapestry of Scotland to be celebrated - not hidden.

 Of course many do understand this. 'Action on Sectarianism’ (AoS) tries to inform rather than judge; and anyone who wishes to debate this issue can do so on this website in a safe environment. Allowing open dialogue amongst ordinary people is something which has been sorely missing. Dave Scott from ‘Nil by Mouth’ (NBM) is another who wants robust debate and understanding before self-righteous moralising. AoS and NBM, along with others, are doing some great work which will pay dividends with future generations.

 In October last year, the Divided City project tweeted anti-sectarian artwork by St Margaret of Scotland Primary School. It was all fantastic, but one in particular moved me. A young pupil came up with a quote under her painting which beautifully encapsulated in one sentence everything I have tried to explain in hundreds of words. It simply said:

“We are all different, it’s ok, we can get through it anyway.”

This is the genuine tolerance we can all learn from.