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By Jason Michael
‘SOMEONE ON THE INTERNET said something mean about me,’ joked Paul Kavanagh a couple of years ago as he recounted to me his experience of negative comments online. And this is true; no matter what we do or say, there will always be someone lurking somewhere online — invariably hiding behind an anonymous profile — who will go out of their way to say something biting and nasty. Here we’re not talking about trolls. We have come to expect them and when we realise this is what they are up to we can dismiss them without much thought. The people we’re thinking about here are fellow independentistas — people who fancy themselves real activists with relevant opinions who have somehow or other gotten a bee in their bonnet about us.
By no means does this include those who engage with us online in frank and honest debate. So much of what we do is the result of these often important casual discussions. While the various personalities of the new pro-independence media may be considered, as Antonio Gramsci describes such people, as the organic intellectuals of the movement, we are certainly not infallible. Quite often, as I am sure regular readers will be aware, we are formulating our ideas and opinions as we go — and much of this is indebted to the many online — and offline — conversations we have with other activists. This is why we frequently collaborate with other bloggers and podcasters. This is an essential part of the praxis of pro-independence activism.
No, here we are talking about people like ‘Stuart.’ I don’t know who Stuart is. In all likelihood neither do you. This is the point of Stuart — you are not meant to know who he is. Scrolling down his — or her — social media timeline, we get to see an independence supporting Scot; someone who engages in the discussion and actively shares pro-independence content to those who follow him — or her. But Stuart doesn’t like me, and like others like him — or her — he — or she — likes to let me know this with snide remarks and negative comments which are intended to shut down discussion and put others off engaging with me and the material I produce. Part of this, we can be sure, can be attributed to what the legendary Terry Pratchett described as the ‘crab bucket:’
‘Oh, that’s crabs for you,’ said Verity, disentangling the ones who had hitched a ride. ‘Thick as planks, the lot of them. That’s why you can keep them in a bucket without a lid. Any that tries to get out gets pulled back. Yes, as thick as planks.’
This is a kind of spiteful envy, and they give themselves away when they say things like: ‘How did you get so many followers.’ It actually hurts them that someone else might have more followers, more influence than them. Yet, as the rabbis say, ‘The more flesh, the more worms. (Pirkei Avot 2:7)’ They struggle to realise that someone else having more influence than them takes nothing from their ability to build up their own following and influence. Social media followers are hardly a finite resource, and a large following isn’t exactly the pleasure I think they imagine it is — the internet is overcrowded with ‘haters.’ Still, people like Stuart want to dismiss and destroy everyone more influential than them who says things that challenge their certainties.
After an hour in conversation with Mark McNaught for an Independence Livestream, which was a fruitful and intelligent conversation about the state of the movement and a thrashing out of our ideas for the future of the independence cause, this Stuart left a one-word response to the tweet advertising the broadcast: ‘Why?’ In good faith, the social media person at Independence Live asked him — or her — to expand, to which he replied: ‘Why you interviewing [Jeggit], he’s a crank … He’s an attention seeker who ramped it up to 11 before the election.’ Oh no! Someone on the internet said something mean about me.
Crank is a pejorative term used for a person who holds an unshakable belief that most of their contemporaries consider to be false. Common synonyms for crank include crackpot and kook. A crank belief is so wildly at variance with those commonly held that it is considered ludicrous. Cranks characteristically dismiss all evidence or arguments which contradict their own unconventional beliefs, making any rational debate a futile task and rendering them impervious to facts, evidence, and rational inference.
It would be interesting to know what Stuart thinks makes me a crank, what he sees as my unshakable ludicrous belief. We may never know. Is it that I believe Scotland can and should be an independent state? That I believe this can be brought about by a supermajority for independence in the Edinburgh parliament as Ireland did in 1919? Or might it be that I advocate for the creation of a Scottish Republic, like 159 of the world’s 206 sovereign states? What of this — the three fundamental principles of my politics — makes me a ‘crank?’ These are fairly pedestrian political positions — independence, democracy, and the Republic are normal politics. Hardly the stuff of cranks.
Considering his poor grammar, it is difficult to imagine Stuart finished primary school — but then, a good education isn’t everything. I have studied at three prestigious universities, hold two postgraduate degrees, and an academic fellowship in History. When I am not busy being an attention seeking crank on the internet, I teach and write and publish academic papers. So much of what I do professionally depends on me not being a crank.
He is, however, dead on the money about me being an attention seeker. See, here’s the thing: I believe, as an activist, that I have a part to play in bringing about independence. Everyone who considers themselves an ‘activist’ must think the same way. We all have a part to play. We all have a roll. Now, people like Stuart — what, with 77 followers — may take immense pride in being the little guy and feel he — or she — has a mission to pull everyone down to his impressive level of irrelevance, but the truth is that we have to influence others. This is how we shift opinion and change minds. This is how we affect national political change — and this is our business. In order to do this we have to have an audience. Without the audience we are cranks, we are screaming — like Stuart — into the void. If we are to make a difference online, then we have to seek others’ attention.
Why am I letting Stuart occupy so much of my attention? Simple — I think he needs some attention. He needs a hug. But more seriously, Stuart isn’t just one person. He — or she — is symbolic of an entire phenomenon of online crabs trying to shut everyone up and shut down every conversation. Stuart follows more people than he has followers — Stuart is a follower. He is the perfect lamb for the fold of populism. But he is the worst kind; he is the kind of psychologically weak follower who wants to kill all the leaders. Stuart is a symbol of the most dangerous quantum in our — in any — movement.
Internet activism: How are political movements shaped online? | Big Think