Above all else though, it’s time for the Scottish Government to end its silence and move assertively on to independence.David Pratt: Post-election silence on independence from SNP is deafening
When yours is the dissenting voice there are times when it feels as if yours is the only dissenting voice. It’s a lonely place outside the bubble of certainty and complacency that surrounds the generally accepted perception of an issue. Of course, it’s rare for anyone to be truly alone out there. It would be remarkable if given the same set of facts and circumstances any conclusion drawn from those facts and circumstances was truly unique. If you have developed a particular view then it is all but certain that many others have done likewise. The sensation of being a lone voice is real nonetheless. Feeling like a minority of one can be a testing experience no matter the extent to which that feeling is justified.
It’s comfortable in that bubble of general agreement. There is community there. There is the reassurance of affirmation from those of a similar mind. No matter how wrong you may be you are surrounded by people who will tell you you’re right. It’s a place where doubt is banished. It can all too easily become a place where doubt is prohibited. A place where questioning is regarded as heretical. A place where rational inquiry is synonymous with craven treachery. A place where you’re either with or against. To choose the latter is to become an outcast. That’s never a good feeling.
The outcast doesn’t leave behind the danger of intellect-sapping dogma. Being excluded can lead to an exaggerated defensiveness which is no less intolerant of scrutiny than the dominant perspective inside the bubble. The outcast may create their own bubble. Which tends to exacerbate the sensation of being alone. You must be alone if you put up barriers against everyone else. It can be difficult to be a dissenting voice and remain open to other dissenting views. The dissenter must constantly remind themselves that they only came to be so by being prepared to consider alternative interpretations of the facts and different understandings of the circumstances. The dissenting voice must be wary of falling victim to the fallacy that righteousness is inherent in the dissent – mirroring the belief by those inside the bubble that righteousness derives from mass concurrence.
The dissenter departs the realm of rationality should they fall prey to the notion that the supposed uniqueness of their perspective evidences immunity from the errors of thinking which beset the rest of humanity. The rational mind questions everything. First, foremost and always the rational mind questions its own prejudices and preconceptions. The certainty and complacency of the bubble is anathema to the rational mind. The inquiring mind eschews the comfort and security of what ‘everybody knows’.
Notwithstanding this inclination to embrace the uncertainty of existence rather than seek security – however illusory – in the nodding crowd, the dissenting voice must speak with the courage of conviction. Not the conviction of blind faith. The conviction of reason. The dissenting voice must be careful only to express views that have been duly considered. Those who speak with the boldness and forthrightness of conviction born of a rigorously rational thought process will be accused of thinking they’re always right. To which they should be able to respond with total honesty that they are well aware of their own fallibility and so take care not to say things that are wrong.
It’s not easy being the dissenting voice. It feels lonely – even if one is never truly alone. If the dissenting view has any merit at all then it will inevitably be taken up by others. Much – perhaps most – of what is held by those within the bubble of mainstream opinion to be obvious and self-evident truth was once dissent. The difference between dissenting and mainstream thinking is entirely a matter of numbers – regardless of the content of that thinking. Either can be fallacious or erroneous. There may be merit in both. If the dissenting voice speaks truly it will tend to be joined by others. The general public is stupid. People are not. The mob is a dumb beast with a ring through its nose to be led by established power. People tend to favour truth over lies and pragmatism over romanticism. On their best days people will favour truth and realism even at the risk of becoming outcasts. If the dissenting perspective is worthy it has the potential to attract similarly dissenting voices. The numbers game starts to swing in favour of the worthy dissenting perspective.
I like the idea of tipping points. It’s a very common phenomenon. As is the closely related concept of critical mass. There is commonly a point at which something that was previously the province of a relatively tiny minority transitions into majority opinion. The transition can often be very rapid. Hence the idea of a tipping point. The moment at which an idea is taken up by the small number of voices needed to make the difference between a fringe notion and a challenger to mainstream thinking. The ‘overnight success’ that follows decades of seemingly fruitless effort. The point at which the dissenting voices are so many as to present the appearance of a comforting bubble of certainty to those who are attracted by this. Although they will deny it, people begin to flock to the previously dissenting view for reasons that have nothing to do with the content of that view and everything to do with the lure of safety in a crowd. And the fear of being left on the outside.
The SNP’s critics within the party and the independence movement as a whole have long been a scattering of dissenting voices so sparse as to make each seem isolated and alone. But that number has been growing. With every passing day of inaction by the Scottish Government more and more people are coming to question the SNP’s approach to the constitutional issue. These dissenting voices are not identical. Some are reluctantly and minimally critical. Others are outright condemnatory. Some insist the independence movement should give up on the SNP as the source of effective political power and effectively start from scratch again. Others hold out the hope that Nicola Sturgeon might yet be persuaded to take a more robust and urgent approach to restoring Scotland’s independence. There is merit in both these viewpoints. There is error in each.
It is not my purpose to assess and discuss these different forms of dissent here. I want to focus instead on the question of whether we may be approaching a tipping point that, if she has any awareness at all, Nicola Sturgeon must dread. The point at which the dissenting voices coalesce into a mass too great to be ignored. I am not persuaded that we are close to this tipping point. My doubts are prompted in large part by the fact that so many of those dissenting voices have been diverted by a mythologised alternative party. Their energies are being squandered on efforts which cannot in a timely fashion progress Scotland’s cause. The message proclaimed by these voices is that we needn’t bother trying to force the Scottish Government to act now as one day their party will have the power and won’t need to be forced. Anyone dissenting from that notion is treated as a heretic just the same as they are for questioning the SNP’s approach to the constitutional issue. Which I suppose makes me a ‘double-dissident’. And more of a lone voice than ever.
Maybe not. There are other new voices joining the scattered ranks of dissenters which have no tendency to seek refuge in fantasy politics. I was heartened today to find that The National’s esteemed Foreign Affairs Editor, David Pratt has now aligned himself with critics of Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the constitutional issue. Rightly or wrongly, I take this as a sign that we may indeed be approaching that tipping point where the separate and solitary voices of dissent becomes a coherent chorus demanding action as a matter of urgency.
I am encouraged in the idea that we are near a tipping point by a recent conversation in which a previously diehard devotee of Alba Party admitted to entertaining doubts about its efficacy. Not to mention its honesty. This may seem trivial in comparison with a highly respected political commentator of David Pratt’s standing speaking out about the “deafening” post-election silence from the SNP on the subject of independence. But is is in combination that these persuade me there is yet hope for Scotland’s cause.
Perhaps it will take only one or two more changes of heart such as David Pratt reveals in his column and/or a few more people questioning the prospectus proffered by Alba Party to take us to the point where the trickle of fresh dissenting voices becomes a flood. We may yet see the toppling of the Sturgeon doctrine in time to rescue Scotland from the British Nationalist onslaught. And without the inevitably messy toppling of Sturgeon herself?
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