Vile trolls and eminently respectable trolls

In addition to this blog I have one for professional purposes and I use Twitter for work. Both are vital for my public image. Potential clients will search for me and decide whether to hire me based on what they see. Before I post any tweets I always think “what will this look like, what will clients think?”. I try not to go to the extreme of bland dullness on Twitter. I want my personality to be visible. I do allow politics to stray onto Twitter but I keep most of my political opinions away from that Twitter account. This blog, however, is for personal statements that I wish to keep separate from my work.

I cringe when I see other people using social media in a way that makes them look stupid, offensive or vindictive. It baffles me that they either don’t know or don’t care how they appear to the world. In some cases the reason is simple stupidity. In others it is arrogance. It is always unattractive. I despise trolling. It goes against my nature and upbringing. It is the height of bad manners. Yes, it really is that bad!

There has been endless discussion and condemnation of trolling in Scottish politics over the last couple of years. Most of the concern has been about Yes campaigners and SNP supporters, the famed “vile cybernats”. I have no time for the idiots who fling around epithets like “traitor” and “quisling”. The same applies to those on the other side who cheerfully smear with “fascist”, “Nazi” and “Stalinist”, or draw inane comparisons with North Korea and Zimbabwe.

There may be no significant moral difference between the two groups, but there is a significant practical distinction. The cybernats are angry, bitter outsiders. The unionist trolls may be angry and bitter, but there is a smug and arrogant complacency about them. The reason is simple. They have been taking their lead from the establishment. Prominent journalists and politicians have been able to insult and abuse in the comfortable knowledge that they will not be held to account.

The rule is that cybernats troll, but the bold unionists exercise free speech in a admirably trenchant manner. Well, I don’t buy it. Trolls troll, and offensive idiocy isn’t any more acceptable because it comes from the well connected and influential.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There really is a problem with offensive SNP supporters, but the problem will never be solved if the press and establishment pretends that the problem is confined to the SNP and the successors to the Yes campaign.

That was why I am concerned that the distinguished composer James MacMillan has been given a knighthood. MacMillan, by any reasonable standard, has been an offensive troll over the last couple of years, but a troll in defence of the Union.

MacMillan has consistently smeared the SNP, and its supporters, as fascist. He has accused them of being Stalinist, compared the SNP with North Korean and Zimbabwean politicians, and claimed Islamic State supporters would probably join the SNP. The pro-independence artists group National Collective was dismissed as “Mussolini’s cheerleaders”. MacMillan has also hounded the playwright Alan Bissett for having alleged fascist tendencies. It would be insulting to Bissett to say that the evidence was even thin. The journalist Joyce McMillan complained about patronising and rude comments made about her on Twitter and that she would never be so hurtful to him. James MacMillan simply replied “tae see oorsels as others see us”. Well, it’s all robust, free speech I suppose, but it is cheap and unpleasant behaviour that diminishes public debate about important issues. It is trolling.

I therefore found it deeply dispiriting to see a man who has behaved in such an irresponsible fashion rewarded by the establishment. I don’t accept the theory that he has been rewarded for supporting the Union. That’s nonsense. He’s an eminent figure in the arts, perhaps the pre-eminent Scottish musical figure. In ordinary circumstance he would be well qualified for a knighthood. However, these are not ordinary times in Scotland. The country is finding its place again in the United Kingdom, and it may not be possible to accommodate Scotland in the Union in the long term. People are hyper-sensitive and hurting. Whatever route Scotland takes people will feel genuine pain.

We do need to be sensitive to the views and needs of others, and we need to isolate the extremists and trolls, making it clear that their behaviour is unacceptable. Knighting James MacMillan sends out the clearest, unambiguous message that the establishment, and those who back it, can play to different rules from the rabble, from the outsiders. Any public figure backing independence who had behaved as offensively as MacMillan would have put themselves well beyond the pale, and rightly so. SNP politicians would have been challenged to condemn the culprit and distance themselves. The narrative sold by Better Together and most of the print media during the referendum campaign was that in the absence of evidence one way or the other, Yes supporting trolls could be safely assumed to be under the control of the SNP.

“Cybernat” trolls will interpret rewards being given to their unionist counterparts as compelling evidence of double standards, proof that the establishment hates not trolling, but threats to its position. It is hard to disagree with them. When they see confirmation of their long-standing belief that the establishment is cynical and hypocritical they will feel absolved of any moral responsibility to exercise restraint themselves. It is a depressing prospect, and it is made even worse by the knowledge that the establishment really has shown itself to be cynical and hypocritical. Those on the side of the establishment can do no wrong, because they can decide what is right and wrong.

So the spiral will continue downwards. The nationalist trolls will get worse. The professionally outraged hypocrites in the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and Daily Telegraph will be outraged and respond in kind. Both sides will seethe in righteous fury. In the middle ordinary citizens will shudder and turn away from the mess. We will all be a little bit poorer in spirit, and we will know that the establishment and populist press care not one jot.