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By Jason Michael
Any writer can write what his or her readers want to read. That’s easy. It takes courage and integrity to tell people what they don’t want to hear.
Some guy on Twitter, a fellow independentista, has taken it upon himself to start telling me what I can and cannot say on my blog. He has also begun a campaign of informing his own social media followers that he will unfollow them if they continue to follow and retweet me – or as he calls me, “that ‘Jeggit’ arsehole.” Now please don’t think for a moment that I am writing this because Rab has hurt my feelings or that I have a personal axe to grind on him. The truth is I don’t actually care what Rab thinks of me. It did take a bit of digging to discover what his beef with me was, and I’ll get to that, but his rage touches on something that is worth discussing – reader censorship.
Back in April I published a piece, “Referendum 2018 or an Alternative Road to Freedom,” in which I shared my thoughts on what I would do if the SNP squandered the triple mandate it currently has for holding another independence referendum. Let’s be clear; we still have that troika and I support Nicola Sturgeon and I trust and hope she will use it and give us the referendum we want. But in this article I was quite candid. I made it clear that if the mandate was wasted and if I arrived at a point where I believed the SNP was no longer working towards that goal I would begin looking for another party to take use where we want to go.
Like many people, my support for the Scottish National Party is conditional. I am an independentista first, and I will support whatever party is most likely and best positioned to secure Scottish independence. Right now that is of course the SNP. But this isn’t quite how Rab read it. He read into what I said a betrayal of the Party, and from that point on he was unable to control himself and his language. Ever since he appears to have been waging a wee one-man war against me, but sadly my block button has prevented me from seeing this until someone else brought it to my attention.
But my purpose here isn’t to retaliate against him, and I certainly don’t want others to do that either. Please don’t read this as a request or a hint to unfollow or block him. He has his opinions and I believe my right to share my own is predicated on all of us having that same freedom. What I take from this is something more interesting, the role that the reader or social media follower assumes as censor.
Over the past month in Irish politics I have become painfully aware of the power readers and social media users have in controlling what writers – especially opinion writers – produce. In the midst of the Irish abortion referendum I made the decision to state my case. It wasn’t the popular opinion, but, and in fairness, it wasn’t by any stretch an extreme position. I have never liked the fact that a ban on abortion was part of the Irish Constitution. This was definitely a hangover from a time when the Catholic Church had too much power and control over people’s lives in this country. When the referendum on the Eighth Amendment was called I was a natural Yes voter, but when the question was set it was a simple Yes and No question with the promise of immediate legislation allowing for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks.
There are real life situations wherein medical intervention is required to save the life of a pregnant woman that ultimately ends the life of the child. This is real life, and I think most of us can make our peace with such realities. However, believing the unborn to be a human being, I could not – in good conscience – support a Yes vote with the promise of further legislation that would fundamentally undermine my own religious, moral, and ethical understanding of life.
You may imagine, in a country that in the end voted overwhelmingly in favour of repealing the Eighth, my opinion did not go down well. Social media followers and personal friends responded, and often with a vitriolic fury that caught me entirely off guard. I was called a “rape apologist” and a “misogynist.” The appalling history of many religious institutions in Ireland – the Mother and Baby Homes and the Magdalene Laundries – were thrown up in my face, the implication being that my opinion on life equated to my support for the behaviour of others during some of the darkest episodes of this country’s recent and not so recent past.
To say that I crumbled under the pressure would be an understatement. But the message was clear: My opinion was not welcome. Choosing to share it meant that I would have to make the conscious decision to be prepared to suffer a ferocious backlash and take a significant hit in the form of upsetting comments in public and online and lose followers – a First World problem, but still a surprisingly effective method the internet has of keeping people in line.
Every day since the end of that referendum I thank God – any god that might be listening – that that is over. But, like few other experiences, it has caused me to think more deeply of this idea of reader-censorship. It is patently clear to me that the internet has almost entirely taken from us the ability to disagree amicably and thrash out big and important issues in civil conversation. Whatever the debate is, this is a new social reality we all now have to come to terms with.
Thanks in large part to the way the internet and social media work we have been herded into tribes of opinion, rarely coming face-to-face – or “interfacing” – with people of radically different opinions. Trends in the development of identity politics have perceptively homogenised our tribal opinions, making us less independent thinkers than subscribers to our chosen tribal groupthink. What this means is that people are increasingly finding themselves pressured into adopting a package of positions so as to conform to the expectations of the collective rather than individually thinking through each question for themselves. Of course there are people who have thought through their opinions on the SNP, independence, and abortion – or what have you, but groupthink is an undeniable consequence of modern identitarian politics.
It was clear to me that if I was to maintain my standing among my friends and followers in the abortion debate I was expected to modify my opinion or shut up. On reflection now, I am shocked at how much effort it was – how stressful it was – to break the rules. Similarly, there is something of this groupthink in the behaviour of Rab and the many others who hold to this notion that it is heresy to break ranks with, and even talk of breaking ranks with, the Party. If independence means anything at all – for the person or for the country – it means freedom; automatons cannot be independent and a nation of automatons will never be free.
Pro-independence writers can modify what we say to meet the expectations of the movement. Always giving people exactly what they want would be brilliant for our ratings. It would vastly increase our social media followers, but it would have a devastating effect on the movement – it would enslave us to the most futile and self-affirming groupthink. It would make us unfree in preparation for an independence we’d have made ourselves incapable of realising. Right now I can choose to tell you what you want to hear, but in doing that I would not be giving you my opinion. By writing what the reader wants and only what the reader wants the writer – as a thought leader – forfeits all claim to his or her writing. He or she might as well be writing for The Sun.
We don’t write that you might believe. The job of the writer is to set out the facts and persuade. Readers are always free not to be persuaded, not to agree, but when the reader or the group assumes the role of censor the freedom of the writer dies. If we are in the business of independence then we must think seriously – and for ourselves – about the nature of that freedom and our preparedness to tolerate the extension of that freedom to others.
Groupthink in 12 Angry Men
5 thoughts on “On the Reader-Censor”
Well said Jason. I left the SNP some time back after a very brief membership. I have issues with them locally (the ongoing and unresolved Monklands McMafia debacle) which in turn lead to me questioning their integrity overall. I have received some abuse for it, and have been blocked personally by Nicola Sturgeon herself for asking her publicly to step in, after attempts to have the matter dealt with internally hit a brick wall.
As a government the SNP will do much that people disagree with, and as a wide movement they are bound to hack some of their own supporters off from time to time. The present political climate deters us from acting, as many of us realise that self criticism from within the SNP, or criticism from the wider Independence movement will be twisted and amplified to infer that we don’t trust the SNP, therefore we don’t support independence. So people not only stay quiet, they turn on those who continue to be honest and critical, with greater venom than they reserve for our opponents.
Just as a final note, I checked my twitter and found that I’m following Rab too. A retweeted one of his tweets a few days ago, and in it he was rather critical of the SNP…
Sometimes, there’s just no logic.
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As I remember it, Nicola said when the terms of Brexit are clear.
Are they clear yet? No. OK no referendum yet. Simple
…but that wasn’t what I was writing about.
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Sobering words, Jason. In effect I have become a former writer due to this very censorship. I never wrote anything controversial enough to cause any Yes supporters to subject me to their efforts to control me but I saw it often enough that it dissuaded me from wanting to write & made me give up interacting with the Yes movement via Twitter. From my pedestal it appears that half of Scots are brainwashed into supporting the UK, come what may, and a sizeable proportion of the other half are equally zealous about supporting the SNP. Sheep, the lot of them.
For the record, I do support the SNP, I am a member of the SNP & I will continue to vote for the SNP while there is no better alternative. But that’s what I’m looking for; the best solution (which includes Independence for Scotland) not simply the SNP being in power. If I wanted to participate in that sort of blind politics I’d be voting for Labour.
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I tend to think that it’s just the case that most people like to be led and delegate their thinking to others. This is the same the world over.
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