Rules of engagement

The National’s Foreign Affairs Editor, David Pratt, is the latest establishment figure to offer a totally impartial analysis of online debate on the constitutional issue which, coincidentally I’m sure, leaves the establishment unscathed. The conclusion is that everybody is being divisive except us. ‘Us’ being the Scottish political establishment with Nicola Sturgeon at its centre.

Having spent many years travelling the world reporting on conflicts old, new and timeless we might suppose David Pratt particularly qualified to identify the combatants and account for the often highly complex relationships between or among them. Yet when he turns his analytical eye on Scotland’s ‘Twitter Wars’ the result is hardly less simplistic than we’re accustomed to getting from the #WheeshtForIndy mob. That is to say the commentators on the constitutional issue whose main and commonly sole contribution to the debate is to accuse other commentators of damaging the cause or undermining the First Minister or some similarly heretical behaviour.

If we are to believe the #WheeshtForIndy witchfinders then witches make up by far the largest single group within the independence movement. If in fact they are part of the movement and not agent provocateurs insinuated into the debate for the purpose of causing or aggravating fractiousness among the real independence supporters who, according to the #WheeshtForIndy script cannot be considered real independence supporters because they’re all dupes of the agent provocateurs or else agents of disorder themselves or just idiots who don’t know when to STFU and so have to be told – incessantly.

In addition to the agent provocateurs David Prat identifies “shadow warriors, pseudo-nationalists, imposters” and even “some of the SNP’s senior officials” – although none that are named. This, it seems, is the rag-tag army responsible for all the “corrosive shit-stirring”. Then there are the dupes, willing or witless.

…these shadow warriors only succeed in their malicious aims through the help of unwitting and blinkered independence supporters online right now who wilfully or innocently play right into their hands.

If David Pratt was even aware of my existence I strongly suspect my name would be on his naughty-list of “unwitting and blinkered independence supporters online right now”. But I think we all know who he has foremost in mind when he refers to these malign or muddled fifth columnists.

One thing distinguishes David Pratt from the more run-of-the-mil #WheeshtForIndy prater. For by far the most part these self-appointed moderators of the constitutional debate do some exemplary wheeshting of their own when it comes to the particular flavour of shit being stirred by the shadow warriors et al. But David Pratt is typical of those that do in that he addresses the content of the offending material only to trivialise it.

Currently never a day passes without people who are meant to be allies tearing strips off each other. Calling out or putting down those they disagree with whether it be over the treatment of Joanna Cherry, attacks on the First Minister, arguing over trans issues or simply having a pop at fellow independence supporters after having got out of bed on the wrong side in the morning.

We might wonder what David Pratt is getting so exercised about if the subjects of fractious debate are so insignificant. Especially when this fractious debate is further diminished in importance by supposedly involving only a small number of people all enclosed in a social media bubble or incarcerated in a echo-chamber. How might this have an impact on Scotland’s cause such as would justify his concerns?

What David Pratt refers to as “people who are meant to be allies tearing strips off each other” is for the most part no more than vigorous debate conducted in terms no more defamatory or inflammatory than the language with which he chastises those engaged in this vigorous debate. Those who choose to engage. Nobody is holding a gun to anybody’s head. Nobody’s feet are nailed to the Twitter floor. If someone is uncomfortable with or offended by this type of debate then they are not obliged to participate.

What else might we do other than call out those we disagree with? Are we all to be restricted to engaging only with those we agree with? What is wrong with “putting down” those on the other side of an issue? Undermining the credibility of one’s opponents in debate is a perfectly valid tactic. What does David Pratt imagine he’s doing with his column? Is he not portraying those he identifies as his opponents in a decidedly pejorative manner?

Ah! I hear his apologists retort, it’s the tone that matters. Does it? And even if it does, who is to be the arbiter of what is acceptable? How are they to impose such constraints as Mr Pratt seems to think necessary? Some of the commentators being castigated by David Pratt express themselves in what with fully intentional irony I shall call robust terms. I do it myself. I swear. Not all the time and note in every situation. I use expletives to express myself in exactly the same way as I use all words. It’s language, FFS! It’s there to be used! It is not for anybody else to tell me how I must express myself. If I am to do so honestly and in a forthright manner then I must use the language which I deem best conveys my meaning or mood.

Not everybody has the same access to language. For some, effing and blinding is all they have. What then? Are they to be excluded from debate? Are their views not worthy? Are they not worthy?

Personally, I find a lot of what I encounter on social media offensive in one way or another. But I am more likely to be offended by the content than the way it is expressed. I am offended by ignorance and stupidity and dishonesty and bigotry no matter how ‘restrained’ the language. I find nothing at all offensive about an informed and consider view expressed in language that would allegedly make a sailor blush. In the context of the constitutional debate I say the more voices the better. I abhor the idea of ‘permitted’ voices as much as I detest the idea of ‘acceptable’ language.

There are lines defined by law that obviously should not be crossed. There are lines defined by the operators of the online platforms that provide a venue for debate such as our forebears couldn’t even imagine. An agora big enough to hold the whole of humanity. We can choose whether to accept the terms and conditions as stipulated or seek a more amenable venue. There are lines drawn by the administrators of spaces within this global marketplace of ideas and opinions. We likewise are free to move elsewhere. We don’t need any further lines other than the ones we define for ourselves. Be very, very suspicious of individuals, groups or organisations that seek to limit and constrain debate by excluding material of their choosing.

David Pratt seems concerned only that there is disagreement and not at all concerned with the content of the opposing arguments. He mentions “the treatment of Joanna Cherry” as if it is somehow wrong to object to this treatment. Or at least to do so audibly. He mentions “attacks on the First Minister” as if there was no legitimate reason for criticism. He mentions “arguing over trans issues” as if he’s forgotten that it was the SNP administration which brought this issue into the constitutional debate in the first place.

Then there’s this –

I can’t help being amazed by the daily damage being done to both the SNP and wider independence movement because of the name-calling, openly vitriolic attacks and witch hunts that seem now to have gripped so many.

Damage? Really? When the #WheeshtForindy mob aren’t using accusations of doing serious damage to Scotland’s cause and/or “providing succour and clout for Unionists” to evade legitimate concerns, pertinent questions and constructive criticism are they not also the ones assuring us we’ve never been closer to independence? Which is it? Is the cause crumbling under the weight of internal dissent from the establishment line? Or is it stronger than it has ever been thanks entirely to that same establishment line? I’m sure David Pratt is familiar with the term ‘doublethink’. Either the dream of independence is at risk of disappearing “like snow off a dyke” or it’s inevitable. Only with doublethink can it be both simultaneously.

Mr Pratt ends with a wee homily derived from his experience as a foreign correspondent. Channeling Sun Tzu, he offers this advice,

Don’t mistake your ally for an enemy, don’t give the opposition political ammunition through division and don’t fight battles you can’t win or aren’t necessary.

I have three rules of my own. Don’t assume someone is your ally just because that’s what they purport to be; don’t let your discourse be constrained by self-censorship having allowed your adversary to define the terms of debate; always fight the battles you deem worthy of the effort even if you can’t win. Many great victories for justice are won on ground prepared by earlier defeats.

The cause chooses you. Once chosen, speak your mind as you see fit. Be a good ally to those who prove themselves good allies.

6 thoughts on “Rules of engagement

  1. A very tight piece. Pratt is a good columnist on the whole, but he toes the party line as much as the rest of them.

    I find it extremely frustrating and irritating that under these circumstances it is impossible to engage in debate. I also wonder if Scotland is actually capable of being independent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting that you say it is impossible to engage in debate. The #WheeshtForIndy attitude actually makes debate impossible. Or it would if it succeeded. That’s because the objections they raise to certain voices can be applied to all voices. There is hardly a comment that could not be criticised in the same terms – perhaps even precisely the same words – as the #WheeshtFordIndy whingers deploy against critics of the SNP and Scottish Government. It is a simple matter, for example, to accuse absolutely anyone of damaging the cause. It’s an allegation which can be neither proved nor disproved. If everybody responded by STFU there would be no debate at all. Only the messages put out by the SNP and Scottish Government.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I became involved reluctantly in the trans thing yesterday when I was accused of peddling right wing ideology and punching down because I shared an article that used the wrong pronouns. No room for discussion there either. Tragic.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Successful communication is when the person who receives the message understands it exactly the way the sender of the message intended the person to understand it.
    How they get there whether it’s saying “gr8” rather than “great” or “Aye” instead of “Yes” or peppering it with swear words “effing c**t” rather than “horrible person” is irrelevant. It’s all about ensuring the recipient understands it exactly as the sender intended. A person with a limited vocabulary should not be excluded simply on account of his limited vocabulary. That’s breathtaking arrogance as well as crass stupidity. If people want to say something let them speak and in whatever way they want to. PS – For what it’s worth I’ve told a fair few jokes over the years and there are some I believe actually work better when I employ a swear word. A good piece Peter.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One of the problems with self-censorship is that it usually is not …. self-censorship. It’s keeping quiet on important matters so as not to ‘offend’ those holding a different/opposite viewpoint. (I use parentheses around the verb in the previous sentence as very often those who take a different stance affect upset as a means of filling in the void where their argument should be).

    The other aspect that is disturbing is that those who insist on silencing debate is that they seem to believe that unresolved matters will simply disappear. If the subject is of importance and is considered controversial or considered ‘toxic’ it is best to get the issues out in the open in order to resolve fully and finally – putting a sticking plaster on an open sore without first extracting the poison will not let the healing process commence. Even an inexhaustible supply of bandages will not fix it.


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