I often find myself in a dilemma on social media.
I see people abusing each other because of their point of view. Occasionally someone has a go at me. Usually it’s in relatively mild terms – I must hate Scotland/the SNP, I’m vile, I must be filled with bile, and so on. Once or twice it’s gone beyond what I regard as acceptable, as when a well-known cybernat asked rhetorically of me ‘Is this old fart still bumping his gums?’ In context a question like that might just about have oozed under the threshold as humourous but this is someone who frequently goes beyond the pale.
Of course, abuse is a relative term and remonstration at it sometimes produces the response ‘If you don’t like the heat get out of the kitchen.’ One person’s robust debate is another’s appalling bad taste and we all have our own boundaries. A useful rule of thumb is said to be the answer to the question ‘Would you say this to a person’s face?’ although sadly some of the low lifers who inhabit the web would. Others give the impression of being adolescents locked in their bedroom high on the power of being rude without sanction. Indeed, I saw a case once where someone rebuked a particularly obnoxious comment (not political) with ‘I know your mum and I’ll tell her if you don’t say sorry.’ The boy, for it was, immediately said sorry and deleted his original comment.
The mention of adolescents brings me to the trigger for this post – the youngest MP (ever?) Mhairi Black of the SNP. She’s not quite adolescent since she’s aged 20 and has a first class honours degree in politics from the University of Glasgow. So not stupid. But she has been indiscreet both politically and socially. I won’t detail how: those who know will be aware and the original material circulates endlessly on the web.
But, the thing is, she’s just made what has been hailed by many, and not just her fellow SNP MPs, as a very good maiden speech in the Commons. It certainly had eloquence and commitment and she was gracious to her Labour predecessor although I found the substance thin. The saddest thing for me was that listening to it on the radio I thought she sounded old before her time, a sort of tired West of Scotland hoarseness that lacked youthful vigour.
Some might regard that comment as itself abusive and there’s the dilemma. I would say that within the bounds of decency elected politicians (of any party) are fair game about their politics and about any burden of hypocrisy they carry. These are people who want to mould society to their own values and beliefs. If their views and the arguments they use to justify them are wrong they need to be countered, but not with easy insult.
I expect a hostile, albeit sad, reader with plenty of time to spare could scour this blog, not to mention Twitter and Facebook, to find where my comments have been unacceptable. I’ll help them (perhaps). The worst I can find recently are two examples.
One was when I called Alex Salmond ‘a self-deluded roly-poly pudding’ although it was in the context of a bizarre interview where his own self-perception was clearly that he bestrode Westminster like a colossus (my words but definitely his sentiment). His hubris needed taking down, even if it was only for the relatively modest numbers of readers of this blog. On the other hand, he is well known to keep his marriage very private and since Mrs S has no political profile I have no reason to comment on her (except, once, as the carrier of her husband’s saltire that he waved contrary to the rules at Wimbledon last year).
The other was when I used the collective noun ‘clowns’ about the mainly new group of SNP MPs. That was perhaps at the boundaries of my own instincts of what is right. Some of them, as they start to gain a profile and speak in public, can sound articulate and intelligent. But the context for my clowns remark was their collective early behaviour in the Commons, something their applause of Mhairi Black’s maiden speech yesterday suggests they may not all have got over. Nicola Sturgeon has demanded respect for them and for the SNP from the government but she needs to remember that respect is a two-way street.
Still, articulacy and intelligence are not enough. Politicians also need to be right. And where they’re not they need to be countered.
For that reason I find the most effective contributions on both sides of the separation/independence divide in Scotland are those that actually mount a rational argument and do so in moderate terms. Appropriate humour can help too. It’s easy to get angry, and I do myself, but while abuse might make people feel good it’s certainly not going to convince anyone with an opposite point of view. And that is what we need to do: convince those who are open to argument that separation is not a good idea. There are many reasons why that is the case. Let’s use them all.