13 August 2014

Conflict aversion

"Do you think it's really wise, putting your head above the parapet like this? I just don't understand why you do it." It is the opening gambit in a curious, but now familiar, conversation which I've had a couple of times with folk over the course of the referendum campaign. Both were confident, articulate, committed Yes voters, working in the public sector. Both had internalised, if not outright aversion to expressing their political preferences in public, then a distinct anxiety about finding themselves embroiled in any sort of overt, public disagreement. 

For them, politics was a matter for convivial rage down the pub, amongst friends, or outraged but private newspaper consumption. Their politics only really activated in the secret, individual communion with the ballot box. For them, to nail your colours visibly and unrepentantly to the mast is also to lob a torch carelessly into the powder magazine: you burn your boats. After all, Scotland is a small country. You never know what's coming down the line, and what powerful figure might in future put a black spot against your name for your mutinies against their constitutional preferences. Far better, far more circumspect, to keep your burning passions for the dining table and the snug, and to vote Yes discreetly on the 18th of September. Nothing ventured: something potentially gained.  Belt and braces.

Some of this can be explained by a safety-first interpretation of rational self-interest. But I wonder if there isn't a wider cultural point about a Scottish discomfort with public political disagreement which the referendum process has revealed. One hackneyed account of Scotland sees us as a belligerent, in-your-face nation, at home in a habitat of conflict. A flyting tribe of impatient Groundskeeper Willies, bubbling over with antipathies, irreverent, thrawn and not feart to fall into controversy.  Given the trembling unease which has characterised the referendum campaign, and real discomfort about the idea of ordinary folk becoming engaged in politics, you've got to wonder how much truth there really is in the Cowardly Lion's play of dauntless courage.

Many folk don't like conflict, even, or perhaps especially, a conflict of ideas. Having loitered around in academic circles for some time, you internalise a sort of ease with conceptual disputes. You know that if a colleague or a friend vigorously dissents from some argument or idea that you've advanced: it's probably nothing personal. And if you are a switherer like me, some of these exchanges will undoubtedly have prompted you to revise your thinking, nudging you into looking at the universe at a slightly different angle. Other points, nothing will move you from. But the process can knock the rough edges from off your arguments, sharpening them up, pairing back your impassioned exaggerations and opening a window into other perspectives. Being open to this kind of critical process is something I try hard to kindle in my students.

But outside of these kinds of environments, I've often found that folk get tremendously invested in their ideas. They stitch them through themselves. To disagree with someone can feel like a sort of personal attack, met not with open-minded confidence, but with defensive measures. The tone can easily turn got-at and snarky. In the campaign, we've seen a fair bit of this kind of anxiety. The No campaign has been haunted by imaginary oppressors, and in the absence of any credible bully-boy tactics, has expended a remarkable amount of emotional energy into the verruca gnome that is the "cybernat". 

Last night, to end an admirably steered, engaged, informed and thoughtful BBC Scotland referendum debate in Inverness, a member of the audience reprised the divided Scotland meme. Won't the referendum leave families torn apart by conflict, divisions and discord? Won't we need some wet-eyed member of the clergy to tour the country, laying on hands, comforting the ailing and the distressed? Some elements of the No campaign favour a similar argument, implying that to have the referendum at all represents an ugly and indefensible act of strife to inflict on the nation. Things can only get bitter, they lament, regretfully. Over at the Scottish Review today, that corner of the interweb where Scotsmen of a certain antiquity repair to bemoan the fate of the nation, Kenneth Roy takes up the theme, concluding:

... I have begun to feel like an alien myself. There are days when Scotland – a country in which I have spent all of my life without a thought of ever leaving it – is barely recognisable from the Scotland of my memory and affections.

We have a tradition of the stairheid rammy. I have always liked the idea of the stairheid rammy. In actuality or merely in print, it is a way of letting off steam, is soon over, does not involve a long journey home, and seldom brings with it damaging long-term consequences. 

The new Scotland is different. It is increasingly difficult to care which side – Yes or No – is more responsible for the ugliness of the present mood. What matters is how it is tearing us apart. The debate, if one must dignify it with that lofty description, has gone beyond 'robust', the word of choice of those who excuse it. It's simply vicious. The men of God are right. The scars will not be easily healed.

But fear not. The new aliens in our midst, people like me, will not be attacking Scotland. We are too repelled and ashamed to do anything very much. Like the fairies at the foot of the garden and the UFOs outside the big house, we are essentially harmless.

Jeezo. Given the civility and respectfulness of almost all of the debate about our constitutional future, given the high passions and the strong views which rightly characterise it, there's something pitifully spineless about this aversion to active citizenship and - let's face it, fairly mild - political conflict. You wonder what folk like Roy would do in a situation of more profound factionalism and animosity, if they are reduced to trembling aspic by this exemplary political process. 

Weren't things much less ugly, more dignified, more consensual, when we suffered quietly, kept our politics between ourselves and the ballot box, and the people stoutly upheld the dignity of the stoic and took their radishing with good grace and their mouths shut? Whichever way you intend to vote in the referendum, there's something down-heartening about the uptight longing for the days, when we railed pointlessly about politics in private, and took no action to transform it in public. I've written before about the perils and challenges of talking past one another. There's doubtless an empathy gap in this referendum, and a tendency on both sides to overlook the ambivalences which characterise many people's feelings on the constitutional question.

But the old republican villain, Niccolo Machiavelli, had good things to say about the utility of conflict in political systems. He pointed to ancient Rome, for example, contending that the episodes of strife between the people and the senate helped to keep both honest, and ensured that the liberty of the people was better upheld. Conflict can be uncomfortable and yes, potentially divisive. But we disagree, and if we keep our gobs shut, we're only disavowing the importance of our political beliefs, and awarding victory to the party who is better at smuggling their political ideas in quietly, as inevitability or common sense. That's making a desert and calling it peace.
The utter chicken-heartedness of the idea that you get a better kind of democracy by just keeping your head down disgusts me.

If this kind of politics troubles you, grow a spine.


  1. I wonder if the revulsion the folk at the Scottish Review have toward all this debate and disagreement isn't just a sad reflection on their inability to perceive that their relevance is deeply tied to the existence of the Old Order. In other words, their objection to all this constitutionality is that they specialize in discussing Scotland as it once stood: divided by religion, struggling with poverty, proud of its long-suffering civic sector despite Tory cuts, and in which the leading lights were tub-thumping Labour politicians affecting constant outrage.

    The Yes campaign promises to relieve us from all of that, meaning the Scottish review has to manufacture division, grudge, and grievance as that is all they understand. A Scotland where people are not nursin' their wrath to keep it warm is inconceivable to these people.

  2. Thank fuck i'm a simple, working class Scot. I'm a Yes, and so are most of my workmates. ;-)

  3. People can be silent 'Yessers' all they want. When they're standing in the polling booth, they know what the correct decision has to be and that's 'Yes'

  4. ..........and Kenneth Roy is an auld woose.

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  6. It was quite some time ago, and in relation to an entirely different subject, that I believe the last word(s) on Kenneth Roy were said.

    Those words were, "vacuous twerp".

    Identity of copyright-holder withheld to protect the guilty.

  7. I work in the public sector and I can't say I'm aware of anyone particularly keeping their heads down but there is an avoidance of turning every staffroom conversation into a political debate. You may find this 'spineless' - I just think it's a normal realisation that people have to work together and allowing conversations to be dominated by monomaniacs isn't the best way to do this.

    If like me you'd been to 'fuck off' back to a country you weren't even born in, you might be less convinced that the debate is particularly civil. People who think it has are usually socially isolated by virtue of class.

  8. When I get home (I'm currently on holiday in London, sharing a hotel room with a friend I suspect of being a No voter, but we haven't killed each other yet), I'm going to photograph a window in our village.

    It has four panes. Two panes have Yes posters and a third has a No Thanks poster. (I happen to know that the wife is the Yes and the husband the No, but I don't know how she negotiated to have two posters to his one.)

    I have at least seven nailed-on Yes-voting female friends, several of them born in England, who are currently tearing their hair out over their inability to persuade their No-inclined husbands. And yet the tea gets made and the dishes get done and someone does the washing and someone mows the lawn and I don't believe any of the relationships is heading for the divorce courts.

    (Yes I know it's supposed to be the women who are leaning more to No. Not in my circle of acquaintance is all I can say.)

    Maybe if Jenny Hjul shut her unpleasant mouth, we'd all get on a lot better too.

  9. Thanks for that. Excellent article Peat.

  10. With the benefit of hindsight, a shorter campaign would have been better. I'm Yes, and I am getting bored already.

  11. The Scots used to be famous (or infamous) for their disputatiousness, from literary flytings (Kennedy and Dunbar, MacDiarmid, Ian Hamilton Finlay) to theological disputes that often ended in church schisms. But from 1707 till 1999 there was not much political debate internal to Scotland: politics was primarily something that happened at Westminster. So - unlike literature and theology - Scotland never developed any proper forum for national political debate.

    Over the same period Scotland had a thriving national and local press. But ironically, just at the time when Scottish politics reconvened, the Scottish media went into catastrophic decline. The Herald and Scotsman are moribund, the London media treat Scotland as an occasional irrelevance and Scotland has no serious TV presence. So political debate inevitably migrated to the internet and the social media, with all that that implies - masses of anonymous and pseudonymous posts that easily descend into point-scoring and personal abuse. There are oases of sanity (not least the saintly and scholarly LPW) but we can't kid ourselves that most of the population has access to balanced and well-informed debate.

    Whatever happens next month Scotland faces a media crisis. The print media and TV have failed and we can't yet foresee their digital successors. Sites like Bella Caledonia and Wings over Scotland will surely continue in some form but we still need relatively neutral news sources and broadly based arenas for debate.

    Scotland has special problems here but this is a global issue. How many places are there where Christians, Muslims, Jews, secularists and others can share information and opinions and engage in good-humoured discussion?

    1. It's maybe a worrying sign to reply to yourself but on reflection I realise that this post misses a key point.

      Talking about a forum for debate confuses two different things – a ‘neutral’ medium for communication (print, internet, TV, even face-to-face) and a framework of shared norms (of language, logic, rhetoric and social etiquette) through which people can maintain understanding. Scotland currently lacks a forum for political debate on both levels. In terms of medium, Scotland’s print and TV media can claim a (declining) degree of commonality but they are so heavily biased against independence that they fail the test of neutrality: nationalists are excluded or choose to absent themselves. The internet, on the other hand, accommodates all viewpoints but is so fragmented that it fails the test of commonality.

      There is a further problem about finding a shared framework of norms within which people can debate. In modern democracy the classic forum for political debate is the nation-state, but in Scotland today this is precisely the point at issue. For unionists all debate presupposes an overarching British framework, for nationalists a Scottish framework. This is why both sides regularly talk past each other and accuse each other of bad faith. This is one reason (out of many) why devolution can’t provide a long-term solution: it can’t provide an agreed institutional framework or national identity. This is also why a No vote won’t in itself produce any resolution.

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  13. I have been reading, and for the most part enjoying Scottish Review, but lately I really do think Kenneth has lost the plot.

  14. Its interesting to note that most of those bleating about alleged divisions are on the NO side.

    Westminster would love to have an excuse to ban any further independence referendums if there is a NO vote on this occasion, and this bleating about Scotland being divided is just exactly the excuse they need.

    That is the same Westminster that would rather we had ignored the democratic deficit that fuelled the quest for independence and continued to accept the democratic deficit's continuance without question.

  15. Kenneth Roy.

    The man wrote a brilliant piece on the strange death of a Scandanavian woman on the beach at Prestwick. Perhaps he should stick to 'crime' which he is certainly good at if that is a typical example.

    On anything more about culture or identity, I'm no so convinced.

    In any event, it is an old-fashioned site, where comment, immediately, is not allowed. That says it all about where it places itself in the debate. Very elitist.

  16. Curiously, I read the piece on Scottish Review and found it disturbing, wondering how come the debate on Scottish indy as I'm hearing it seems to be on such a different planet as that described by Kenneth Roy. I say that as one who normally appreciates his writing. I was about to clock off for the night when I thought, "Wonder if the Peat Worrier has anything cheerful to say?" and hit on this contribution. Thank you, Lallands. My peats, now comfortably smoored for the night.