The Language of Violence
The Scotsman, February 19th 2011
For many years I have thought that changing Scotland involved talking about issues, policy and politics.
I have slowly begun to realise that this is putting the cart before the horse. Instead we have to take a much more important and simple first step: learning how to debate, discuss and disagree in an appropriate manner.
All across Scotland in public and private life – there is a low level language of violence which sometimes leads to action. We see this in personal relationships, public spaces and in our politics. This affects most of our lives and yet we barely talk about it.
This can be seen in the tribalism of our politics: Labour v. SNP, left v right, everybody against the Tories, but our politics is only a manifestation of something deeper.
We have a problem in engaging with differing opinions – if someone disagrees with us that they are ‘wrong’ or ‘mad’. This then leads to the widespread belief that we have the right to challenge and tell others off. Most of us carry some of these assumptions in our heads no matter how much we try to counteract them. No wonder Scotland is a land filled in its public life by few great debates but lots of spats and feuds.
There are many reasons this arose. Part of it comes from nostalgia for a Scotland when things were simpler. This is a land where despite grotesque levels of poverty and riches, there was a prevailing sense of egalitarianism and sense of community.
Scotland has also been a place of orthodoxies and conformist mindsets: the Kirk, the Victorian Liberals, then Labour, of collective stories told by authority which says it is on the people’s side.
There is the working class story shaped by the brutality and communality of living in tenements and heavy industry. There is the middle class mindset of arrogance, superiority and believing its privileges could be challenged. Then there is the West of Scotland ‘chip on the shoulder’ which believes in its own importance and that everyone else does not understand it. And then we have the attitudes of some men with their ritualistic, strutting, peacock like behaviour.
Low-level abuse fills Scottish life. Someone reprimanded me this week because I wanted the huge potholes in my Glasgow street filled because the city has more pressing disadvantaged areas.
In the aftermath of Jimmy Reid’s death, and my published view that he wasn’t my kind of politics, someone threatened to ‘smash my face in’ in a public space; on the occasion after Tommy Sheridan’s conviction and pointing out the limits of Trotskyite politics I was told ‘I assume you wrote this when you were drunk’.
Now of course it could be that in all of these cases I was at fault. I can see that. But these examples touch something malignant and malign in our society. An in-depth review of a serious, thoughtful book dismisses it out of hand as ‘mince’ and ‘pernicious mince’, while a respected academic compares Alex Salmond to ‘Hitler and Mussolini’. “Numerous cases abound all over the place.
The unhealthy pleasure we take in collectively writing people off when they are down – from Tommy Sheridan to Jim Devine – rather than acknowledging as I was trying to do in the above cases, the inconsistencies and flaws that go with being human is also part of this.
I do think some of this is at its bitterest on the remnants of the left and that the Scottish left are worse than elsewhere in the UK. There is a Labour authoritarian mindset and a ‘cybernat’ one, both of which are quite unattractive.
But the left mindset – filled with its disappointments and embitterments is particularly toxic. I have a sense that in its golden age with a world to win and make it was more outward looking and optimistic, whereas now it has turned in on itself and others.
A good example of this is the recent book ‘Neo-Liberal Scotland’ by a collection of left minded academics. It calls every part of public life which does not agree with them ‘neo-liberal’. Apparently we live in ‘a neo-liberal social order’ in Scotland; do we really? Funny it does not exactly feel like that. This makes me a neo-liberal!
To deal with our huge challenges, in both the short and medium term we need to begin with basics. We need a set of rules of public debate – including on Facebook and Twitter – and here are my suggestions:
1. Don’t threaten violence. That seems a basic first.
2. Don’t intervene in public debate when drunk.
3. Do listen to people and not just wait to jump in – active listening rather than non-listening.
4. Give people the benefit of the doubt and listen to their reasoning. All Conservatives, for example, are not sons or daughters of Satan.
5. Try to avoid simplicities and clichés – such as all Scotland’s problems emanate from Thatcher, Blair, the state, socialism, nationalism, the union, delete as appropriate.
6. Do try and resist the inclination that you have the right to tell someone off. Sometimes it can be rewarding and enjoyable, but is counter-productive and makes the other person feel horrible.
7. Try putting yourself genuinely in the other person’s shoes. My friend Eddie is a Celtic fan and is travelling round all 42 senior football grounds with me. He says the experience has changed him through teaching him to see the game from a non-Celtic point of view. That seems a major insight to me.
8. Do try to engage in self-reflection about how you act, behave and make your points. None of us are perfect, and we all have occasions when we make mistakes.
We have to learn that words matter. There is such a thing as the language of violence which taken to its extreme dehumanises people and reduces them to the level of objects. And the language of violence, we never should forget, can also lead to physical violence and a culture which excuses it.
Why not try it at home, in the office or with friends, and see how you come off. You might be surprised. Maybe this could be the beginning of a ‘Back to Basics’ Scottish movement.