FOR a lot of football fans far beyond Scotland, it’s one of the greatest fixtures in the world. For others, including, I suspect, a disproportionately large number of women who live in the West of Scotland, yesterday’s Rangers v Celtic match at Ibrox will have been just another dispiriting festival of hate and intolerance.

Personally, I have mixed feelings. Football in Glasgow has never had much in common with a gentle game of cricket on an English village green. It’s steeped in male working-class culture, with all the baggage, positive and negative, that goes along with it. It arouses intense passions which much of middle-class Scotland doesn’t quite understand. And while most of the supporters of both sides are decent law-abiding citizens, violence is never too far from the surface during and after these confrontations, invariably inflamed by alcohol. So, I understand why many people dislike this clash, but we do need to get a sense of proportion. And we should try to understand it all a bit better rather just allow ourselves to be swept away by feelings of revulsion.

READ MORE: What might Keir Hardie have made of Labour's Dundee conference?

This weekend, I read about research from an anthropologist at Queen’s University in Belfast, Dr Joseph Webster, who suggested that while the belligerent chanting of the fans may be grossly offensive, its primary purpose was to “create intra-group cohesion rather than inter-group rivalry”. Offensive chanting, he suggests, is “a collective performance engaged in by a group for themselves, as a demonstration of their own collective membership of that group”. In other words, it’s not that much different from Scotland fans at Hampden or Murrayfield sending Proud Edward’s army homeward to think again. Or the fans of East Fife insulting their Cowdenbeath rivals over their poverty and hygiene.

Having grown up in a Rangers-supporting household, I once had a strong affiliation with the blue half of Glasgow. But over time I found it difficult to reconcile my politics with support for a club whose ethos made me increasingly uncomfortable as I challenged the world around me.

Yet I could also recognise some truth in the observations of Dr Webster. The same people who would display fierce hostility towards each other at Celtic Park or Ibrox would go work on a Monday morning and replace the vile abuse of the anonymous football terraces with good humoured banter. We lived in a mixed community, played in the streets together, and had friends and family on the other side of the divide.

Much more serious is the personalised hatred and intimidation exposed by Mhairi Black in her no-holds-barred speech at Westminster last week. This was not just Unionist trolling of a nationalist opponent. It was not run-of-the mill tribal political name-calling.

This was menacing homophobic, misogynistic hate specifically directed towards an individual. It could cause any reasonable person to be placed in a state of alarm, distress – and for that reason this sort of behaviour is criminalised by section 38 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 and Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. Similarly, if a football fan was to be confronted in the street by a gang of rivals after an Old Firm match and subjected to a tirade of sectarian insults based on their religion, that too would be a serious crime under Section 38 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing Act – and a religiously aggravated breach of the peace.

None of that is controversial. But, in recent years, the lines between clear-cut criminality and behaviour that which is subjectively deemed offensive by some people have become increasingly blurred.

Defending the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act this weekend, a Scottish Government spokesperson said that “singing songs about terrorism, mocking incidents involving loss of life and being hateful towards some of our most vulnerable communities with no regard for the impact is not acceptable in a modern Scotland”. That statement sums up in a nutshell for me the difficulties and dangers involved in using the law to force people to be behave reasonably.

“Songs about terrorism” that are banned at football matches include The Boys of the Old Brigade, which is about the Easter Rising of 1916. The thousands of Celtic fans who were singing the song at Ibrox yesterday in defiance of the law clearly don’t believe they were glorifying terrorism – and nor for that matter does the president of the Irish Republic, who commemorated the centenary of the event two years ago with a speech in which he said: “I do think that, without 1916 and the events that surrounded it, we would not have achieved our independence.”

More widely, I am concerned that in our desire to create a more tolerant society, we are becoming just a bit too, well … intolerant. There is a danger that in our overbearing judgmentalism, we start to compromise freedom of expression because we don’t like what is being said. This is not just about legislation. It’s about how we engage in public debate. To get to the roots of racism, or misogyny, or homophobia, or transphobia, or sectarianism other forms of bigotry, we cannot rely on banning and silencing views we don’t like.

It’s great we’re moving towards a more enlightened society that challenges bigotry and hatred. But let’s make sure the pendulum doesn’t swing to the other extreme to the point where we close down public discourse on issues of real concern and create an atmosphere where people avoid expressing their real views for fear they will be demonised – or even criminalised.