8 June 2014


Back in 2011, the Flying Rodent composed this majestic diatribe, detailing a doer's guide to Concern Trolling. The target of the Rodent's ire was a rash of reports and articles in the UK media, which represented its authors as embattled truth-tellers, "shouted down" by the PC mob and silenced by illiberal liberal elites, inimically hostile to the unsayable, plain, old-fashioned common sense which the hacks and politicians imagine they espouse. 

Nigel Farage has become a past-master of this dual strategy, assuming the mantle of both the Plain Fellow and the Victim. I marvel every time I hear an earnest right-wing gob-jobber on Question Time insisting that "we can't talk about immigration in this country," having spent half of the BBC's flagship politics show, speculating on the extent to which Romanians are lifting the colostomy bags of British grannies, or offering up distorting and racist accounts of crime statistics. 

Whatever pinko censor is responsible for keeping this stuff off the British airwaves is either grossly incompetent, or the forces of reaction's most effective third columnist. As suppression-tactics go, the liberal tyranny which rules us needs sent to Pyongyang for retraining. We seem to hear and see a remarkable quantity of the "unsayable" in the popular media, yet its free availability does nothing to diminish its proponents' sense of themselves as gallant counter-cultural warriors, embattled but determined to make the truth heard, as they see it.  

The lesson? Bullshit fantasies of victimisation have their compensations and pleasures. And the frisson of ressentiment is all the more enjoyable, if you don't actually have to suffer or forgo anything to enjoy your sense of being hard done by. Being "shouted down" is far more satisfactory, it seems, while having your views projected, unchallenged, on the front pages of the national press. Surveying a range of articles cast in these terms, the Rodent concluded:

"I notice the single common factor to each piece (I'll paraphrase, since the Times is paywalled) in that almost every one - report, leader, opinion piece - starts with the premise that the topic is taboo; that discussing it in racial/religious terms opens the speaker up to malicious attacks from the Politically Correct mob; that, in short, the Times isn't allowed to discuss this stuff in these terms. Wait a minute, I think.  You're the nation's paper of record, and you're telling your readership that you're not allowed to report on the things which you are in fact reporting on, in the specific terms in which you're reporting upon them? That doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

Roused from my slumber at dawn on Friday, I agreed to go on Kaye Adams' Morning Call programme on BBC Radio Scotland, to discuss President Obama's faltering endorsement of a "united" Britain. As it transpired, I spent much of my speaking time, responding to a couple of callers claiming that the Yes side of the argument was "shouting down" those committed to continuing Union. 

Earlier in the show, I'd suggested that Obama had lost the redemptive veneer of his first election. No JFK (and the ghastly JFK was no JFK either), the President is now a figure tarnished by the challenges and compromises of office. Not all of this is the President's fault. But whatever his views on Scottish independence, and whatever his assessment of the best outcome from the perspective of American security interests, Obama now cuts a diminished figure. I doubt very much whether his remarks will weigh with many of us on the 18th of September, as we puzzle over which way to cast our ballots, one way or the other. 

Despite the First Minister's pitch-perfect response to Obama's comments, (and my own concerted attempt to be reasonable), Kaye's No callers proved conspicuously attached to the idea that folk of my constitutional persuasion were somehow bullying or unjustly muting dissenters. Despite. You know. Their own opportunity to express their sentiments on national radio. And. Um. The fact that the President of the United States' comments appeared on just about every front page in the country. And. Er. The daily grind of independence-hostile front-pages, news content, reportage and opinion columns. Clearly, opposition to independence is the one political cause in this country which dare not speak its name for fear and trembling. We can only conclude that the pinko censor, charged with keeping immigration off-topic in the UK press, has been transferred to the Yes Scotland office.

Just this weekend, a series of articles in the press harp on the same string. The Times has a piece on unionist artists being bullied mute by thuggee nationalist sculptors and the unevidenced threats and menaces from secessionist choreographers. That notoriously thin-skinned band, stand-up comics, are apparently feart of broaching referendum controversy at this year's festival in Edinburgh.  My heart bleeds.  I suppose they'll be forced into retelling their "edgy" rape jokes instead.  You know: something less controversial. Just the latest, tragic victims of our bilious and bile-spattered referendum campaign.

Hardly a week goes by, without some new tale of a No voter having their misplaced anxieties - and I'm afraid, their cowardice - indulged by sympathetic media outfits, doing their darnedest to convince us that this poll - this model of participative democracy, this civil, invigorating campaign - is something dark and terrible, rending the country apart. In its worst excesses, this construction of the referendum betrays an unseemly relish for the wildly remote prospect of blood on the tiles. 

The underlying message of this commentary is hardly subtle: to hold a referendum represents an irresponsible, civility-curdling outrage: no reasonable soul could honourably agitate for separation. This control-freakery is fundamentally hostile to the democratic spirit in which this referendum is being conducted, sprouting from the bottom up, drafting a new generation of active citizens to crack open and blow a gust of fresh air through the dusty, reverent halls of politics as usual. 

Participative democracy is scrappy, untidy, and frequently impolite. Social media transforms anyone with a keyboard and an opinion into a publisher and commentator. You can, if the mood takes you, fire up Twitter and pour a vial of wrath over leading politicians you disagree with. It won't always be edifying or even instructive, but the opportunity to do so challenges the old stultifying deferences, separating the communicators and those communicated to, and the division of power and roles which this implies. 

Too often, we lack empathy with our opponents. It would be a better country, if more folk could see and understand where those who take a different tack on the constitution are coming from, not least because empathy is the best weapon. But let's keep a sense of proportion, and remember the value of an open society. Uncritically reporting baseless fears is innuendo, plain and simple, even if the anxieties are sincerely felt.

I know a number of folk on both sides, who have been reluctant to participate publicly in the constitutional debate for a range of reasons. Some are protecting their public standing and reputation. Others are trying to ride the two horses at once, anxious not to find themselves getting too publicly embroiled with the loser. Still more are determined in their constitutional views, but pretty lukewarm in them, and reluctant to become the face of one campaign, or the other. We each of us must make our own judgements on this score. But how we understand and construct that reticence is critically important.

"Shouting down" is becoming one of the referendum campaign's irregular verbs: I disagree with you. You shout me down. Alex Salmond behaves like Kim Jong-il. To explain to someone that you regard their case as unconvincing or wrong-headed is not shouting them down. To reject somebody's argument is not to "silence" them. Delusions of victimisation have their emotional compensations, but they disfigure our politics. To repackage disagreement as oppression is to do a fundamental disservice to the democratic process. People who disagree can be disagreeable. Argument can be uncomfortable. But if you feel tempted to regard that as the end of civilisation and the death of democracy, your democratic muscle needs serious toughening. 


  1. The phenomenon is of course massively whipped up, if not actually created, by the press. Whether out of bias, desperation to fill column inches or both, it needs just one person on Twitter to react in a disparaging manner to even the most blatant of ATL trolling with an entirely normal "Och, shut the fuck up, ya bawbag" to generate acres of "VILE CYBERNATS TERRORISE INNOCENT CELEBRITY WHO ONLY EXERCISED THEIR DEMOCRATIC RIGHT TO SAY THAT ALEX SALMOND WAS PROBABLY A BABY-EATING NAZI WHO WOULD MURDER ALL CATHOLICS WITHIN A WEEK OF A YES VOTE" pish.

    The coverage of Annie Lennox posting a picture of a Union Jack on Facebook was probably the most startling example yet. A handful of *spectacularly* innocuous comments were turned into "UPROAR" (the Herald) and "OUTRAGE" (can't remember where), for motives we can only speculate on.

    It's a tough call, but it's certainly up there as one of the most wearisome aspects of the entire debate.

    1. Google "off back to Mars" including the quotes. You'll find an exhaustive list of the UK press tripping over each other for the chance to shout about abuse and the shutting down of David Bowie's right to speak on the issue.

      Really? Does no-one in the press see that "Fuck off back to Mars" is comedy? Do they really fail to see the humour in telling someone to return to somewhere they never have and never could have been? Not spot the ironic use of a racist phrase in a ludicrous context? No?

      Making a ridiculous joke about a celebrity is stifling debate apparently.

  2. Excellent piece.
    I wonder if a tendency to the rebarbative (aka ripping the pish) in Scottish discourse adds to the brew, one man's cheeky banter is another's foul abuse and so on? Though the rare times I dip my toe in CiF or Tele comment sections it seems pretty gamey, if sourer and more humourless.

  3. One of your best posts. You're pretty when you're angry!

  4. Always thought Bowie was a fascist in his younger years but were not allowed to talk about that, or Clapton, although the Beatles did bottle it with Get Back. Reckoned we couldn't handle irony. Seems they were right as the song is still taken seriously.
    "Pretty Ado Lamb, was a pakistani, living in another world,
    Want it thrown around, don’t dig no pakistanis, taking all the people jobs."
    But the referendum is going to get more bitter by the day and I be quite happily winding up all and sundry, although the YES side do seem to bite a little easier.

    1. Bowie wasn't really fascist in his younger years, just off his tits on cocaine. Wrote some barry choons, mind. Look at the gash he's produced in the subsequent 30 years of sobriety. I suspect his recent foray into politics was the product of injudicious overindulgence in a tainted stash of PG Tips.

  5. Norman Buchan on the beebs banning of the Wee Magic Stane

    All censorship is dangerous. When it is in the hands of a monopoly it is doubly dangerous. When a decision is reached on a Scottish product by an English committee it is totally dangerous. We have our own traditions and humour and I think Scotsmen are tough enough to take mild satire in their stride.

  6. LPW: 'this poll - this model of participative democracy, this civil, invigorating campaign '

    Well, I like the Shakespearian touch of Harry in your pitch, but can't see the debate as generally civil. I think the cyber debate has got a tad better lately actually - some of the odder posters on both sides seem to have withdrawn from the melees, for whatever reason, but there is still a fair deal of bad feeling and ad homming out there, among the few people who make up indy cybergabdom. (I think Alex Massie estimates a couple of hundred people but can't mind if that was his guess at all of us gabbers or just of Yes posters.)

    As for 'invigorating' surely the only invigoration that counts is with the electorate and there we are in trouble, whether Yes or No. Salmond rather dumbly sneered at Ukip's success in getting a Euro MSP by saying only 3% of the electorate voted UKip - UKip rightly swung back with the riposte that only 10% of the electorate voted SNP. We are what, about 100 days (without a Napoleonic analogy) away from the referendum and the people cannot be arsed voting.

    Agree about Obama - what he says will have no influence. But then I don't think much will. I know how I'm going to vote, you know how you are going to vote, and I believe many of the 'Dont knows' really know also. The debate may not quite be a dead parrot - more a sick grouse - but barring some deep sea change, you are not going to get your Yes vote in September.

    1. . . .and yes, I am using 'civil' in both senses!

    2. You're taking the piss, surely? Turnout is going to be massive. The turnout for EU elections is poor across much of the EU - I believe Slovakia was something like 21% - but that is in large part because of issues specific to those elections.

      That comment is just dripping with the kind of sneering bullshit so prevalent from supporters of a No vote. "I don't want to have this debate, I don't like what I hear, and I don't like being made to confront the issues behind my support for the continuity of Westminster rule, so that means it's rubbish" - that's how that all sounds.

    3. 'You're taking the piss, surely? Turnout is going to be massive.'

      As John Curtice pointed out with the Euro elections, turnout was way below what the people polled said they were going to do. It has to be higher than the 30s - I certainly hope so also - but the only actual evidence we have is people marching out to the booths, and that has not been good, not for the Euro elections nor for Holyrood.

      'sneering bullshit' - yeah? The assumption that a position is rejected not from true belief but out of wilful ignorance is a common one among religious revivalists and I don't argue with the godly, so go in peace DD.

    4. Agreed Doug - the Yes campaign has been successful in one way: it's pushed vocal No voters into a grumpy, sneery corner. One brilliant example being the lumpen 'fuck yez aw' use of "Naw" instead of No.

    5. Nice trolling Edwin, but I'm not falling for that one. Nobody is actually stupid enough to think you can use the EU election turnout as an indicator for other votes, since everyone knows it's the election the least number of people care about. Still, why not give us an estimate anyway? I'd be surprised if it's even as low as the devolution referendum (60%) - it's more likely going to be over 70% and could even reach 80%. People who don't normally have any interest in voting are taking an interest in this, because they understand this is different. Folk who normally have nothing to say about politics are now the ones who bring it up in conversation. By contrast, a lot of people didn't even know when the EU election was, far less what they would be voting for.

      You can believe something utterly and still be guilty of refusing to see reality. I don't doubt that you do indeed truly believe that nobody is being influenced by the debate and that the Yes side can already be written off - I was speaking to two friends at the weekend who think exactly that and refuse to listen to reason - but it's still completely contrary to what's actually going on in the real world every day. Now that is the kind of thing we expect from religious zealots...

  7. The bitterness will start after the referendum. Might not be nice.

    1. If it's a Yes, all the no voters will swing behind the result because - as we know - they are Proudscots to a man. Maybe a few far-right Huns/SDL/UKIP/IanSmart types will provide comedic relief.

      If it's a No, yes voters will accept that eventually because we're at least used to the status quo. Depression rather than bitterness. And maybe a bit of disgust.

    2. Well that's up to us living and working in Scotland to make sure that the bitterness is dissipated. As Billy Connolly so wisely said, we will get the Scotland we deserve whether Yay or Nay.

  8. Brian Monteith----The Scotsman

    Saying last 100 days--BT will be making a positive case

    day 1 ---- is already a fail