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By Jason Michael
ARMY ANTS DO THIS THING. When things go terribly wrong for the colony out on trail, they begin to form a spiralling mass that rotates and rotates until every ant dies of exhaustion. These extraordinary little creatures are blind and so rely almost exclusively on the pheromones left by the ants ahead of them. But when these trails get looped the entire colony finds itself locked in a spiral death march, with every ant running in a deadly game of follow the leader. Already, it must be assumed, the reader can see where this is going. There is something clearly quite wrong in the independence movement at the moment. We are locked in a chaotic and self-destructive pattern of behaviour which is having a catastrophic impact on morale and group solidarity.
This is something that has become extremely difficult for people like me to talk about. In the chaos and confusion, mistrust and a dangerous level of paranoia has spread over the movement. People are frightened and on the verge of hopelessness, and they are looking for scapegoats. Like the whirling ants, the movement is locked into this behaviour because we are following a set of hardwired rules: the Scottish National Party is the party of the independence movement, the current leadership is the best of all possible alternatives, there is no hope of winning independence without this party and this leadership et cetera. Perhaps these rules have evolved within the movement for good reason — it is not the point of this article to further assail people for their commitment to these ideas. There has been enough of that going on. But what if these otherwise perfectly useful trail chemicals get confused, what if something goes wrong? Might this lead us into a death spiral?
Like the whirling ants, the movement is locked into this behaviour because we are following a set of hardwired rules…
Since the end of Alex Salmond’s trial, pro-independence political discussion online — the only place we have been able to continue this discourse — has descended into an uncontrollable and raging inferno of insecurity, anger, and hostility. Civil discussion has disappeared and many of the interconnected lines of communication — the very thing the internet is meant to create — have been severed as activists in every part of the movement block and mute other pro-independence activists with whom they disagree. The very tools that were meant to bring us together and which made the independence movement such a formidable force in 2014 have been turned on us, weakening the integrity of our movement and setting the scene for a greater conflagration.
Between Mr Salmond’s acquittal and now I have lost in excess of a thousand followers on Twitter, and, as egotistical and conceited as this statement may seem, this is a quantifiable indicator of the damage being done to the structure of the movement. All but a few of the SNP MSPs, MPs and party apparatchiks who followed me before all this began still follow me. The block and mute facilities on social media — as necessary as they sometimes are — have crippled our ability to stay in any kind of meaningful contact. This dismal picture of lost followers and lengthening block lists is being repeated right across the movement and will inevitably have serious consequences for our ability to recover from this slump and wage an effective online campaign for independence — if and when that opportunity next arises.
The personal abuse has reached fever pitch. Yes absolutely — ‘welcome to the internet’ — there is no shortage of people who simply do not know how to behave themselves online. We should all be used to this by now. But somewhere along the line, in this worsening crisis, many more of us seem to have lost sight of the fact that on the other side of a Facebook or Twitter account is a real human being with thoughts and feelings just like our own. Please don’t read this as a scolding; I myself have lost the rag with ‘Nicola fanatics’ and ‘cultists’ on Twitter and have said things which, in retrospect, were not the kindest or indeed the best things to say in the situation. So, here I am only thinking aloud of my own interactions in the hope my musings might help a few others come to the realisation that none of this is achieving anything. If anything, it’s making things a whole lot worse.
Here I am reminded of a past experience of interfaith religious dialogue when I was serving as a board member on the YLC of the International Council for Christians and Jews in Heppenheim. As one might imagine, religious dialogue is fraught with tension and division. Often this division is not so much between the delegates representing the two faith groups as it was through them; not only is it the case Orthodox Jews clash with Reform Jews and Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians squabble with one another — all too frequently different sects within these groups spark off one another. Just imagine the scene of two Catholic theologians going toe-to-toe over the question of the ordination of women.
At one memorable conference there was an explosive ‘debate’ among the Christian delegates about the inclusion of Christian fundamentalists in the forum. Discussion is almost impossible with any form of fundamentalism, and without open and honest discussion the project of dialogue simply is not possible. Did we want to include people who would not respect the validity of other people’s religious lives and experiences? What sort of difficulty would this create for our dialogue with our Jewish sisters and brothers? Would this set the mission of the ICCJ — an immensely important task in light of Christian anti-Judaism, antisemitism, and the Holocaust — back? It was a Sephardic Jewish friend of mine from London who helped us out of this mire:
You want to exclude religious people from religious dialogue because they are ‘fundamentalists?’ You want to preclude the possibility of exchange and encounter because you believe these people do not want exchange and encounter? Isn’t that not a fundamentalist position?
All the Jews I know make statements by asking questions, but he was right. Our rigidity was every bit as rigid as we imagined these other people to be. We have an analogous situation in Scotland. Not only is there a divide running between unionists and independence supporters, there are multiple divisions within both of these factions. And we are dealing with a number of political fundamentalisms; many members and supporters of the SNP are incapable of even entertaining the thought that their hardwired rules might, at least in this instance, be getting in the way of further progress towards independence, and many in the other pro-independence factions have adopted an intransigence towards further coöperation with these so-called cultists and with the SNP. Like the ants, we have found ourselves in a death spiral. Everyone appears to be rigidly following their own set of rules and is unprepared to compromise even an iota with the ‘other side.’ The result is that we are locked in a behaviour of conflict that is both exhausting and futile and leading in short order to the death of the whole independence movement.
Like the ants, we have found ourselves in a death spiral. Everyone appears to be rigidly following their own set of rules and is unprepared to compromise even an iota with the ‘other side.’
In an effort to counter this trend I have made a big decision. Over my time on social media I have built up an impressive block list of my own. To-date, I think I have unblocked only three people and, at that, only after the special intervention of Barrhead Boy and the longsuffering editor of iScot Magazine. The petty grudges I hold are some of the most precious of my possession — a trait well-known to my closest friend who often bursts into the chorus line of ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen when I start recounting some ancient injustice. This week I decided to unblock everyone — absolutely everyone — on my block list, and have been unblocking a hundred accounts a day. The process may take some time.
Yes, there are serious issues affecting the independence movement, and independence politics is a passionate politics touching so many of us right at the heart of our identities. In an instant, arguments and insults are accelerated to accusations of treason and unionism. It was when I saw one prominent antagonist describe his fellow independentistas as ‘former indy supports’ that it really struck me that things have gone too far. We cannot continue to be this rigid and unforgiving. Independence demands the hard work and dedication of hundreds of thousands of people. We will not always agree on how this should be achieved and we will not always see the same things in leaders, in policies, and parties. But without our willingness to let go of our petty grievances, our political differences, and the perceived injustices we have suffered, we will continue on a road following the scent of an endless whirling death march. We will be the reason independence is denied to us.
The task before us is endless, but we are not absolved of doing the work. So, I forgive you. I beg your forgiveness. Now, let us get up and work together for the Scotland we want.
Demi Lovato – Let It Go (from “Frozen”) (Official Video)