FOR poking fun at the independence debate on Radio 4’s The News Quiz, comedian Susan Calman, pictured, says she was subjected to “name-calling, swearing and death threats”. “I was accused of betraying my country, of being racist towards my own people and of being a c***,” she wrote in a recent blog, comments reported in yesterday’s Scotsman.
Plenty of people have spoken up in support of Calman. Others have questioned her motives for speaking out, and the Scotsman’s motives for taking what she said at face value. Print examples of the online abuse Calman says she was subjected to, demanded Stuart Campbell of the independence-supporting website Wings Over Scotland yesterday, suspecting the whole thing was a unionist attempt to smear independence campaigners as bullies (even though Calman had not actually suggested either side was more culpable than the other).
For this, Campbell was called a “misogynist”, a “poisonous bastard” and (by Calman herself) “the vilest possible person” on Twitter. Ironically given Campbell’s scepticism, this actually adds weight to Calman’s original point – that, whenever the subject of Scottish independence comes up, people on all sides of the argument have a habit of resorting to personal attacks alarmingly quickly (including both Campbell and, to add further irony, Calman herself).
It’s a depressing situation. For my part, every time I’ve addressed the subject of independence in writing, most online comments have, instead of responding to specific points in my argument, immediately begun making (wrong) assumptions about my background, class and nationality. This, for some people, appears to be far more important than anything I’m actually saying.
This kind of thing is not confined to conversations about independence. It has as much to do with the way the internet – a place where people can safely and anonymously lob abuse at each other across vast geographical distances without ever having to look the person they’re addressing in the eye – has degraded a lot of political discourse. But combine this technological development with the heightened emotions that accompany an incredibly important debate about the political and cultural future of a whole nation, and the result is frequently disastrous.
This was particularly apparent during the ill-tempered debate following the publication of Alasdair Gray’s Settlers and Colonists essay last year. Nobody came out of this looking very good, from those who (wrongly and scandalously) accused Gray of racism, to those who compared his critics to Nazi sympathisers (this really happened – and from an intelligent independence campaigner who should have known better).
What’s the solution, other than blandly and perhaps naively suggesting that everyone be more polite and respectful to each other? Perhaps Susan Calman nailed it in her blog: “We are over a year away from the vote. If we don’t start laughing soon it’s going to go horribly wrong.”