Keeping the barbarians outside the gates

by | 18 Feb 2022

Far too often language is violence, but the powerful have the capacity to do way more damage with their language than the pathetic name-calling of social media.

Another figure departs the scene with a dig at the state of political debate in Scotland. And I’m entirely caught about how to feel about it.

One the one hand I despise the nature of political debate now. I have repeated over and over again that I can’t understand why people can’t debate policy and strategy without everything always becoming personal – and often unpleasantly personal.

I am certainly robust in my commentary, but I try to keep red lines for myself. I try not to insult for its own sake or for fun and only ever on a legitimate and proportionate basis. That means never someone’s appearance or family or gender or religion or race or sexuality or whatever.

I don’t do social media for so, so many reasons but a crucial one is it’s an invitation to say things you regret by responding too quickly and in anger. I work hard to maintain friendly and cordial relationships with people I disagree with – because it matters.

So I am a million miles away from suggesting that the kind of nastiness that Sarah Smith will have received is right or acceptable or something anyone should feel good about. And yet…

There is the other part of me that has serious problems with the way that the powerful (the Scottish Political Editor of the BBC is a very powerful person) use a reflexive recourse to shouting ‘vile abuse’ to suppress legitimate criticism. And there really is legitimate criticism.

When someone claims to have been on the receiving end of terrible attacks I try to go and find out what kinds of things were said or written. Sometimes what I find is genuinely awful. Other times I find myself looking blankly and saying ‘really?’. The Israeli state has just been calling Emma Watson ‘vile’ for not hating Palestinians.

And that’s the thing; I’ve been called many things in my life and honestly, the ones which involved swear words were very often the ones that caused me the least pain

You see, that’s the thing – ‘vile abuse’ is very often in the eye of the beholder and if there is any side in contemporary political debate which is not escalating the anger and the nastiness then I amn’t sure I’ve seen it.

Among those most certain they are the ‘goodies’ are those who now bandy around terms like misogynist or white supremacist or transphobe or antisemite or homophobe or a host of other ‘approved insults’ like they’re going out of fashion. Quite often there is the most tenuous justification, if there is any justification at all.

And that’s the thing; I’ve been called many things in my life and honestly, the ones which involved swear words were very often the ones that caused me the least pain. This is the problem with the weaponisation of everything. Everyone feels absolutely justified in their rage (though with very clearly variable abilities to project their victimhood). Because everyone feels attacked. Because everyone is attacked in a war of all against all.

What I find most uncomfortable about all of this is the class-based element of it. In language there are generally two classes – an elite class who are trained in the rules of elite acceptability and the non-elite class who aren’t. It is a function of social power and has been since there was a society.

The clearest example is the medieval (and onwards) customs of courtly language. There were people who were admitted into the broad ambit of the aristocracy and once they were they received the inside secret of how to talk to exert their power and avoid being excluded. Many of the conventions of courtly language were barking mad, but it doesn’t matter, because the purpose isn’t to make sense.

The purpose is for the powerful to keep the ‘barbarians’ at the other side of the gate. Say the wrong thing in royal court and you’re finished. Likewise I sometimes have to explain to normal people why someone in public life is being pilloried for use of the word ‘hysterical’.

It’s not just about swear words, though those are an important signifier of being outside the elite class. It’s about things like the mastery of passive aggressive register and learned aphorisms for saying ‘you’re a lying bastard’ without the words ‘lie’ or ‘bastard’.

But that’s the thing – they mean the same. They are still insults, the violence of language used to make someone feel small and powerless and trivial in a way that often cuts much deeper than someone dropping the word ‘fuck’ or ‘shite’ into a sentence. But that’s the final rule of elite language – it is owned by and policed by the elite, the powerful.

‘Vile abuse’ is very often in the eye of the beholder and if there is any side in contemporary political debate which is not escalating the anger and the nastiness then I amn’t sure I’ve seen it

And it’s deeply effective. I grew up way, way outside the elite class in my personal life. To this day many of my closest friends work on building sites or in hair salons. My swearing is atrocious and I’m not really proud of it exactly, but it’s how I grew up, it’s the language I was taught by participating the community I lived in. Not universally (I know plenty people who don’t swear), but pervasively.

But in my professional life I learned how to not say these things, how to wound in the ‘acceptable’ way that the elite wound. I just choose not to. If I’m going to call you a bastard I’m going to call you a bastard and be damned with passive aggression.

The consequence, though, is significant. If I went onto the BBC and said that I held in my hand conclusive proof that some powerful national figure was (oh, off the top of my head) a child trafficker or someone who exploits trafficked women and in saying so I accidentally dropped the word ‘fuck’ into a sentence, that’s all that the rest of the interview would be about. Me apologising, not me revealing the details of child trafficking.

Such is the power of court, such is the intense solidarity of the elite class in keeping those barbarians outside those gates.

(Today I read what felt like the entire western media convincing itself it hasn’t spent the last week bringing a tirade of hatred down on a 15-year-old ice skater, finally breaking her like they seemed desperate to all along – and then claiming the child abuse involved is clearly nothing to do with them.)

So no, I have no time for the nastiness. I wish everyone would stop. But no, I’m a little shy of shedding tears for the powerful because someone called them names where they have used their power freely and to the detriment of people much less powerful than they are.

Will this end? Sadly I can see no light at the end of the dark tunnel we currently find ourselves in. Social media will see to that.

But I rather suspect that Sarah Smith will soon find that the US isn’t the nirvana of joyful political debate she seemed to imply it would prove for her, other than that with greatly-reduced levels of power, she’ll draw greatly reduced levels of scrutiny.

And her implication that there is something particularly wrong with Scotland? Personally I found that unjustified and abusive. But there you go.

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