In previous generations people like me wrote in obscurity. We wrote letters to friends and colleagues that were afterwards destroyed. We might have written pamphlets or contributed to small circulation political magazines. If we were very fortunate indeed, we might have been asked to write a column in a newspaper or found a publisher ready to back us. But even J. K. Rowling was rejected by any number of publishers and it was perfectly possible that like Emily Dickenson her talent went unrecognised. Talent isn’t enough. You also need to be lucky. Some mute inglorious Rowling here may rest.
Prior to the internet people like me would write a dissertation that two or three people read. After that we might publish journal articles and then after a few years of research a monograph. But many if not most journal articles are read by less than a hundred people. Monographs sell a hundred copies if you are lucky mainly to libraries and then gather dust. The internet changed everything. It is the equivalent of the invention of the printing press and will have just as large an impact.
But the internet too is not enough. I could write my articles every few days and put them on the internet, but almost no one would read them. It would be the equivalent of writing letters that never arrived. What gives me an audience is social media. Without Twitter and Facebook, I would have no readers.
But there is a downside especially on Twitter. The contract is this, you get to publicise your work, but the price is that people get to say to you things that they would never dream of saying to any stranger on the street.
Imagine walking home every day from work. Every now and again you come across an unsavoury character, but you can cross to the other side of the road or keep your head down. But imagine if there was a whole mob of such people all of whom wished to shout abuse at you and there was no alternative but to pass through the mob. This is what Twitter feels like sometimes.
Of course, there is no obligation to go on Twitter, but in that case there is no audience. It’s like being in a play where the price of being Hamlet is to have things thrown at you. There is no need to be Hamlet of course, but then you can hardly be an actor.
I have been doing what I do for a decade now. I write articles that I hope are based on reasoned argument. I do not personally insult anyone, though I do use forceful argument to point out the flaws in other people’s arguments. I don’t hold back, but rather say exactly what I think even if it is controversial. I believe there is no point writing otherwise.
I am happy for people to respond with reasoned argument, though I don’t promise to read everyone else’s opinion. I accept that I may be mistaken. I may be quite wrong. But I think it is worth testing arguments to destruction by saying things that might appear to be outrageous. It should be easy for you then to point out the flaws in my logic.
I disagree with the Left and Scottish nationalism, but do not hate people who vote Labour or the SNP nor the leading figures in these parties. I am a Conservative, but willing to criticise Conservatives when I think they are mistaken or wrong.
I try to remain polite at all times on social media. I rarely if ever comment on someone else’s post unless they comment on mine. I almost never initiate conversations. I do not swear and try to avoid personal attacks.
But lately my timeline has been filled with a never-ending succession of hate filled trolls desperate to say the worst possible things imaginable about me personally simply because I dare to write what I think.
When I first started on Twitter, I tried to read every comment. Later I only read my notifications. Now I only can read my own Tweets and some of the replies to them.
The response of the mob of course is that I deserve it. How dare you write an article that questions the need for food banks? How dare you object to Nicola Sturgeon saying she detests Tories? You are a Tory and you deserve to be detested.
So, my journey home from work becomes not just about avoiding Mr Angry, or the loudly barking dog, but a whole mob of people who think its OK to shout and swear at a stranger, because the stranger deserves it.
This is the real-world consequence of Nicola Sturgeon perhaps genuinely detesting Tories. It encourages the mob and tells it that you can hate people who dare to disagree with Scottish nationalism or question left-wing orthodoxy.
I have weathered enough Twitter storms to know how to deal with them. You block indiscriminately and when you get tired of blocking you don’t bother reading the hatred. Soon enough the bullies get tired of their victim and move on to another one all the time thinking that bullying is virtuous and hatred moral.
I stand up to it by writing my next article and publishing it. These people want to shut me down. It’s in essence a denial of service attack. But they can’t. I kept writing in 2014 when they flung everything, they had at me. I keep writing now.
But Twitter storms do have real world consequences, if not for me, then for others. The downside of social media is what it can do to mental health. If a mob of neighbours in the street told someone that he was hated it would be devastating for the victim. But an online mob is larger than any mob in the street. Someone on Twitter makes a mistake. He says something he shouldn’t or uses the wrong word. Suddenly from nowhere hundreds or thousands tell him that he is hated. He tries to apologise or explain and he is told that he deserves it and don’t try to excuse your wickedness.
This can make people crack. This can cause a nervous breakdown. This can lead to suicide. Every member of the mob is responsible.
The hypocrisy of the SNP in particular is that it allows and encourages foul mouthed supporters to intimidate opponents not merely online but also in the street. They feel they are justified because Sturgeon has told them they are right to detest people like me and that I deserve it. Sturgeon in that sense is part of the mob.
What is the point of having SNP rules about behaviour and SNP policies on mental health and wellbeing if SNP supporters are allowed with impunity both online and off to say the most hateful things about those who disagree.
What is the point of having rules about misgendering if mobs of these people turn my first name into a swear word and call me, he rather than she? If you call Kaitlyn Jenner “Bruce” and “he” you are a transphobe. The logic is clear.
By all means disagree. Write an article pointing out where I am wrong. But unless I insult you personally why do you feel you have the right to insult a stranger personally for campaigning for what she believes? You are the equivalent of the mob that faced Atticus Finch as he guarded the jail holding an innocent black person. I’d rather be Mr Finch.
There is a reason the Pro UK argument is so opposed to a second independence referendum. It’s not because we would lose. We would have as good a chance to win as in 2014. It’s because none of us want to face the hate filled mob of Scottish nationalists again, which we expect would be worse than last time and still worse again if it was to lose twice.
The intellectual foundation for Scottish nationalism does not exist. No one in the SNP has made the case using reasoned argument, which is why it relies on detesting Tories. But what if detesting Tories instead of being an online game became an offline game? What if the Twitter mob became a real mob looking for the posh Tories and English accents that stopped them winning indyref a second time?
If you think someone with a Ph.D. from Cambridge is stupid by all means compare qualifications. If you think hate will win you more votes than last time by all means continue your attempt to intimidate. But do you know what? I think you lost last time because of the mob that tried to stop Jim Murphy speaking. I think you lost because we didn’t dare put up posters in case our windows got smashed. You lost because we are not scared in the ballot box and can put the cross where we please and you can’t intimidate us there no more than you can intimidate me here.