In Terry Pratchett's Hogfather, the disappearance of the Discworld's porcine equivalent of Father Christmas throws Hogwatchnight into disorder. Stray belief fizzes around the universe. A casual aside by the Arch-Chancellor of the Unseen University - glingleglingleglingle - and puff, the anthropomorphic representation of the Verruca gnome, his sack burgeoning, manifests in reality. The same procedure called up the Hair Loss Fairy, the elephant-schnozzled Eater of Socks and the Oh God of Hangovers. In our world, it isn't quite so easy for humanity to summon our ideas into actual existence, but language can and does exert a similar effect.
The term "cybernat" has very recent origins. Coined by Lord George Foulkes, and first referenced in the Sunday Herald in 2008, I've written before about the popularisation of the term in Scottish political discourse. A quick look on LexisNexis suggests that its usage is still rising. The Daily Mail devotes a frequently absurd article to the idea this morning. According to Alan Roden, apparently "we don't want to be part of your neocon country where the poor get poorer and the rich richer" represents an "abusive attack". The mind boggles.
In the early years, usage was marked by its hesitancy and diversity. Was it to be "Cybernat" or "cyberNat"? Informality seems to have won out, and the capitals mostly dropped. Today, the term is used thoughtlessly by most commentators, as if we all knew what it meant, and who it referred to. By talking so incessantly about cybernats, we're summoned them into a largely taken-for-granted existence. The cybernat is treated like Pratchett's Verruca gnome, sprung fully-formed from the mind of Lord George Foulkes. But it is worth taking another look.
In its original Foulkesian sense, "cybernat" had a clearly negative connotation, denoting not just an independence-sympathetic soul's manifestation online, but striving to substantiate a class of folk whose activities and comments could be constructed as abusive and illegitimate. This isn't a terrible peculiarity. You needn't be a linguist to know that we constantly traffic in laden terms without being entirely explicit about what we mean. Politics is a particularly fruitful domain for this sort of constructive vagueness in terms. "Social justice", "fairness." Etcetera, etcetera.
But the term cybernat performs a number of useful functions for its proponents. Firstly, it structures the ordinary abusive and critical demotic of the internet as a particularly pro-independence pathology. The innumerable tweets and comments online from across the UK, raging against various members of the coalition government in colourful and personal terms, suggest that "we're all in this together" in terms of the childlike pleasure of tweeting that a cabinet minister looks like a dyspeptic Vogon with a scone blocking his colostomy bag.
Anyone who has ever had occasion to pop their phizog on telly should know that doing an Ed Balls, and searching the subsequent Twitter stream, is an expedient only for those prepared to experience disagreeable accounts of just about everything about you, from what you said, to how you said it, to how your hair happened to be styled that day. After my Newsnicht outing in 2012, I seem to recall that some friendly soul said that I represented everything that was wrong with Scottish nationalism. Its silken, suggestive edge was the killer touch. The same, it seems to me, is true of every country and every political system where passionate beliefs and passionate hatreds are held by folk with few inhibitions, low empathy for their opponents, and an iPad.
But through the cybernat lens, we see things differently. The universality of the characters of the troll and the flamer are elided, in favour of the specific claim that online villainy is a particular Yes-inflected phenomenon. If you dismiss Alex Salmond a fat wank whose melon face you'd like a pulp with a two-by-four before drowning him in a barrel of tonic wine, you're at most a disreputable, isolated individual whose conduct tells us nothing about the party or campaign with which you are associated.
If the cybernat describes a pro-Union columnist as a "Tory tool", by contrast, you're part of a disgraceful, organised and ultimately leadership-controlled campaign to silence those who disagree with your constitutional preferences. This isn't whataboutery. I have no interest whatever in developing a parallel whine about the "cyberbrit", whose infractions against decorum can be thrown back in a tu quoque. The simple fact is, the lay of the cybernat allows an identical catalogue of abuse to be interpreted in radically different ways, depending on whether its author favours independence or continuing union.
It's a double-standard, and one with fairly explicit, and broader political purposes. The generalised figure of the "cybernat" is a way of hanging on – increasingly desperately – to the "pathologised" figure of the Scottish nationalist. If the mainstream SNP didn’t exist, the cybernat wouldn't have to be invented. The metaphors characteristically associated with the cybernat are significant. "The mask slips". "The sinister underbelly of Scottish nationalism, revealed". "The darkness at the heart of the nationalist cause".
Often implicit in all of this is the insulation: Look at these folk. They're really all slightly loopy, unpleasant head-bangers, no matter how reasonable and orderly Alex or Nicola contrive to appear on telly. You can't trust a Nat. They're all itching to gulag you, somewhere in the foetid swamps of their imaginations. This kind of discourse has already had a profoundly distortive effects. Sing a few songs and barrack Nigel Farage in Edinburgh? Dark signs of authoritarian ethnic nationalism on the march. Clatter Nigel Farage over the head in Kent? Er. Gosh darn those hate-filled Anglophobic. Um. Kentish.
None of which is to say that some of what folk are saying online isn't unpleasant, moronic - or actively counter-productive for the campaign they claim to support. Of course it is. But how we construct the illegitimacy and legitimacy of political speech is important. And I'm always suspicious of self-appointed arbiters of taste. Particularly those who, as recently as a few months ago, ran a front page against a political opponent, claiming that his dead dad "hated Britain". Or perhaps exaggeration, scurrility and abuse is only objectionable when you undertake it on a freelance basis, with limited circulation.
In the hands of some of its proponents, the idea of the cybernat seems increasingly to be deployed to represent perfectly reasonable but contrary and critical perspectives as beyond the pale. Today's Daily Mail piece is particularly revealing in this respect. The article is accompanied by a sidebar of shame, recounting particularly outrageous cybernatty responses to a recent article, critical of some aspect of the SNP's independence platform. Amusingly or appallingly, depending on your viewpoint, it includes many perfectly respectable, critical responses to the article under the aegis of cybernat abuse.
One lackwit called its author a "quisling", but according to Alan Roden, it is now an illegitimate scandal to compare the authors of articles you disagree with to Rob Brydon or to criticise the ideological direction of the UK government, and its attendant privatisations of public services. There's much more colourful stuff out there. Just search for Alex Massie's name after yesterday's turgid BBC Question Time inspired independence debate. Yet the Mail pluck out these examples for special villification, and then complain that it is the amorphous crew of cybernats who are striving to stifle legitimate comment. If reasonable participation in the constituional debate is to be defined as excluding passionate points of view about the limits and vices of our current government, count me out too.
I have friends - good, smart people - who have stopped writing about Scottish politics because they grew tired of the endless negativity, the idiotic foul-mouthed denunciations and allegations. And female friends from across the world, who feel slowly bled dry by the barrage of misogyny awaiting their writing. I lament that. But legitimate criticism and pointed differences of opinion also tend to sting. It is a tried and tested debating strategy, not to answer the arguments actually advanced, but to strive to undermine them using other tools.
Like Pratchett's accidental anthropomorphic personifications, the cybernat has been conjured into recent life by our imaginations. It is beyond question that the Scottish political debate online - like all political debates - will have it share of impolite, irreverent and sometimes downright ghastly participants. But like the Verruca gnome, this household god of the independence debate is smuggling iffy material in his sack. Handle this popular little fellow with care.