Friday, 26 June 2015

Sticks and stones

This week we have had an extensive piece by Margaret Curran in the Daily Mail on the abuse she has suffered on Twitter, together with a screaming exposé of how some of Nicola Sturgeon's followers are 'vile cybernats'.

Let's get one thing clear.  I don't condone personal attacks on people.  Making nasty comments on someone's appearance is an unpleasant thing to do and completely unnecessary.  It's behaviour that should have been left behind at the primary school stage, and really speaks more to the immaturity of the insulter than anything else.  Similarly calling people 'cunts' is not the way to have a reasoned debate or persuade them of the merits of your point of view.

Having said all that, however, as a politician you can't afford to be thin-skinned.  You have to accept that some people are not going to like your party's policies and are not going to have the verbal tools to debate them with you, so will resort to what they think will hurt you.

It's always Twitter that is singled out as being a venomous bear-pit, and it's worth thinking about why that is.  For the first time the internet has given ordinary people the ability to interact with politicians on a real-time basis.  However, it does this at a remove, so people feel they can say whatever comes into their heads without consequences.  After all, the person isn't standing in front of you, so you can't see the hurt you may be causing, and there's no immediate danger of physical retaliation.

Politicians have got used to being in the Westminster bubble, where the staff are deferential and their opponents by and large respectful.  It must therefore come as a bit of a shock to be exposed to the electorate in the raw, as it were.  Mind you, for any politician who has taken the time to meet their constituents, the language used, the language of the streets, while distasteful, should not be a surprise.  On the streets you don't have formal debates and handshakes afterwards.

Another aspect to this is that the people acting this way on Twitter are pretty much all men.  In my experience men debate differently from women.  They will insult each other, and to the outsider it can sound like fighting talk.  Insults will be traded, all with the aim of winning.  Afterwards, however, the participants will be best of friends.  Women, by contrast, will generally try and come to a consensus, and can find the male debating style intimidating.

In my youth my mother used to tell me 'sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me'.  She also taught me that the best way to deal with insults was to ignore them.  It was sound advice, and I'm quite sure that Ms Curran was given similar advice while growing up.  So why doesn't she follow it?  Because any opportunity for 'SNP Baaaad!' must be seized and given maximum exposure.  After all, what other political party is held to account for the actions of their supporters on the internet?  It's not as if supporters of Scottish independence (note: they're not all SNP members) are the only ones who are nasty on Twitter, but you don't hear the Labour party being held to account for the behaviour of their supporters on the same medium.  Hypocrisy much?

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