Stand by your words

pw_scotsmanI tend not to complain about ‘online abuse’. As a denizen of social media and someone with strong views on a variety of subjects, I get my share of insults, threats and smears. I don’t concern myself unduly about it. There’s a couple of reasons I don’t get all worked up about this abuse. For one thing, there’s no way to prevent it. Like junk mail, spam email and unsolicited calls, unwelcome or offensive comments are part of the price we pay for the facility. And I reckon it’s a price worth paying.

I’m not about to nail up my mailbox to avoid getting yet another Farmfoods flyer or offer of no-questions-asked life insurance for the over-50s. I deal with it. I put the ‘offending’ material in the recycling bin.

I don’t – and never have – put so many filters on my email account that nothing gets through. Modern email system filter spam so effectively that it is hardly an issue any more. But even back when spam was rampant I resigned myself to the far from onerous task of cleaning out junk from my inbox a couple of times a  day. I was fine with it because what I got in return was a marvellous facility which allowed near-instantaneous global communication at no measurable monetary cost.

Similarly, social media is an excellent way to engage with people at a distance. It is open and accessible and relatively unconstrained. It is a truly democratic medium which provides a venue for unlimited discussion and commentary. I value that. I value it greatly. That some individuals use this facility in ways that I find distasteful is a vanishingly trivial consideration when compared to the benefit of having such an arena for public debate.

Not everybody has the same access to language. We are not all equally erudite and. We don’t all possess well-developed communication skills. We don’t all express ourselves in the same way. Social media gives everybody a voice regardless. And I heartily approve of that – even when that voice is is saying things I don’t agree with or find offensive.

There are limits, of course. Incitement to violence or hatred cannot be tolerated. But, in the interests of preserving this unprecedented facility for democratic debate, I’m prepared to be exceptionally tolerant. I think we should set the bar as low as possible so as to enable the widest engagement and participation. I am more concerned by those who would raise that bar so as to exclude than by permissiveness. I am prepared to pay the price of occasionally being exposed to abusive material because I appreciate the value of what I get in return. I see it as a transaction. And, by an incalculable margin, I am getting the best part of the deal.

There’s another reason I don’t complain about ‘online abuse’. When I make a statement or a comment, I do so having considered carefully what I am saying. It is for this reason that I have a self-imposed bar on posting if I’ve had three drinks. I know that, by the time I’ve finished my third drink – less if it’s one of the strong beers I tend to favour, my judgement is significantly impaired. So I stay away from Facebook and Twitter. I will only say something if I’m prepared to stand by it. And it’s probably not going to be easy to defend some drunken rant.

If I get it wrong, as I inevitably will from time to time, I want to be as comfortable as anyone can be with taking responsibility for my errors. I could never be at ease with being guilty of letting alcohol speak for me. Inebriation is a choice, not an excuse.

Not everybody is so cautious. Sometimes, even in sobriety, people make ill-judged comments or ill-considered statements. And they are duly discomfited when it comes to taking responsibility for their misjudgement. All too often, they are not prepared to face the consequences of their folly. It is an all too common trait on social media that those who have made rash statements that they are not prepared to defend or equipped to elucidate seek to hide in a fog of claims of ‘abuse’ rather than deal with the scrutiny in a mature manner.

I don’t complain about ‘abuse’ because I am not one of these people. And I would abhor to be thought of as one.

Pete Wishart is making a big fuss about ‘abuse’ following his recent article proposing indefinite postponement of the new independence referendum. (And yes! It is ‘indefinite’. If no timescale is defined then it is, by definition, indefinite.) I have seen little of this claimed ‘abuse’ as I was blocked from following his Twitter account at an early stage. Ostensibly, this was because I called him a ‘poster boy’ for British Nationalist extremists. In reality, all I did was point out that Scotland In Union had adopted him as their ‘poster boy’.

To my way of thinking, the fact that his publicly expressed views on the subject were finding favour with the lunatic fringe of Unionism was quite relevant to the debate on the timing of the new referendum. A debate which Pete wishart ourports to want.

Although I’ve seen little of the “attacks” Pete Wishart has made the topic rather than the one he supposedly wants to discuss, and nothing that I considered “extraordinary”, I accept that there may have been comments which could be described as abusive. That may be unfortunate. But it is no more than that. I most certainly isn’t the major issue for the SNP or the Yes movement that is being claimed.

It would be easy to dismiss this as ‘just Twitter’ but I know that environment reasonably well and I have to conclude we might have an issue and ­difficulty in our movement.

This is patent nonsense! What Pete Wishart defines as ‘online abuse’ is no more prevalent in the Yes movement than across Twitter in general. And if he wants to claim otherwise then he should present some of the “evidence” that he insist is so essential to debate. Nor are the “attacks” on him any more vehement or offensive than the generality of such material on Twitter. All Pete Wishart ‘suffered’ was the same stuff we all have to put up with. His ‘suffering’ is not exceptional. It is no more than the relatively infinitesimal price we all pay for access to an exceptionally open, democratic forum.

So why the almighty fuss? A fuss which, inevitably, has been seized upon by the British media as yet another stick with which to beat Scotland’s independence movement.

Some have opined that Pete Wishart’s statement urging indefinite postponement of the referendum was a “calculated stunt in order to help him retain his seat in any forthcoming general election”. They regard his motives as calculated self-interest. They have seen his tantrums over commonplace Twitterpish as a deliberate attempt to smear the independence movement for his own ends.

I disagree. To me, Pete Wishart’s intervention has all the hallmarks of utter thoughtlessness. He simply didn’t think it through. He doesn’t even seem to have realised that his stated position would be controversial. There is no malice. Just some foolishness. Which can surely be forgiven. Especially in the case of someone who has been such a diligent and doughty defender of Scotland’s interests in the vipers’ nest of British imperiousness that is Westminster.

There is a problem. But it is not the problem that Pete Wishart imagines. What is causing great frustration and even some anger among even his staunchest supporters is the disconnect between his stated desire for debate about the timing of a new referendum and what I shall graciously describe as his disinclination to engage meaningfully with the very debate which he has provoked. He says,

We need these debates. Positions have to be challenged and analysed. Evidence has to be presented and judgements have to be made.

But when perfectly reasonable questions are asked of his position – when valid observations and legitimate criticisms expressed and necessary clarifications sought, he blanks and blocks and bleats about ‘abuse’ rather than address the issue. He hides behind a fuss about abuse because, as all evidence to date suggests, he is incapable of dealing with scrutiny of his proposal and/or unprepared to take responsibility for what looks very much like an ill-judged outburst which he now regrets.

That is the problem here. Not the behaviour of a few individuals on Twitter, but Pete Wishart’s failure or refusal to engage. This is not the behaviour people expect from a politician of his stature and experience. If he has a case for indefinite delay of the  referendum then he should make that case using all the skills we see him deploy in the Commons chamber and the Scottish Affairs Committee which he chairs so effectively.

If he has ‘mis-spoken’ – as I strongly suspect – then he should demonstrate his strength of character by acknowledging his mistake.

Attempting to cover his embarrassment by deploying the chaff of whining about ‘online abuse’ is not acceptable. It does not reflect well on him. It is beneath him.

Never doubt Pete Wishart’s commitment to the cause of restoring Scotland’s rightful constitutional status. Never doubt his willingness to work and readiness to sacrifice for the people and nation he so ably represents. Respect the man’s achievements and the capacities and personal qualities that he has brought to cause and party.

Never question his loyalty! Just fucking don’t!


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