This morning, my Twitter feed threw up a statement from Scottish Pen about Jenny Lindsay, a fine Scottish performance poet and regular performer at book festivals, Fringe events and so on. It seems that Ms Lindsay, who’s written several times on the subject of transgender rights and feminism, has been receiving online threats and abuse to the extent that the police have at times advised her not to go out alone. Her honest and relatively minor contribution to the debate (and I hope Jenny doesn’t take offence at that) also led to her losing a work contract.
I know Jenny a little. She’s also a Modern Studies teacher, a pretty good one at that, and she was a colleague in my department for a short while at Portobello High School. She’s open, not afraid to share her views, happy to engage in debate and she listens to others while doing so. But the thing that would strike you on meeting on Jenny for the first time is her warm, open, friendly smile. Some people bring a little light into the room with them whenever they enter, and Jenny is one of those. She is absolutely not someone who represents a threat.
Just a few days ago, Joanna Cherry was catching it from the social media trolls. Apparently, after Diane Abbott, she’s the MP who receives the second highest amount of online abuse. J. K. Rowling gets more than her share, too. Of course it’s no coincidence that all three are women: women, like people from ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community, receive hugely disproportionate greater shares of abuse in our society generally.
As a man, what irritates me most about the trans/feminist debate is that I want to listen to it, I want to learn, I want to hear all views – and yet I’m prevented from doing so because those with carefully considered opinions on both sides are all too often frightened into silence. Each time I do get to hear something, though, my mind is genuinely opened up a little more.
Nor is it confined to the trans/feminist debate. Labour, SNP, Conservatives and now even the Greens have all been split in two by the venom of social media. We live in a society torn apart by Brexit and Scottish independence, to say nothing of our old familiar divisions of race, class, rich & poor, sectarianism, gender and the urban/rural divide. Our society’s inequalities are widening, not narrowing, and the pandemic will multiply those inequalities still further in the years to come.
And yet, instead of trying to find common causes, our newly-empowered groups on social media have sought to exacerbate those tensions with anonymised screams. It’s as though they believe that those who shout the loudest get the most. (Exactly the reverse is the case, of course. Large multinational corporations don’t join in Twitter debates.)
Insisting that you’re 100% right can even be entirely counterproductive. Jeremy Corbyn – or rather, his supporters, it wasn’t Jeremy’s fault, really – made the Labour Party so unelectable that now we have Boris Johnson and Brexit instead. I was a strong Remain supporter, but even I would recognise that our relationship with the EU needed review and I think a large majority would have agreed. There’s a demand for Scottish independence, but only a narrow majority favours it; nevertheless, I do believe there’s a consensus for some complete realignment of the union to ensure Scotland controls its own destiny. Grab what we can all agree on, and build from there.
It’s as though the entire world has forgotten the power of consensus: that seeking to join forces with those whom we disagree on some points actually achieves far more than closing our minds. If I listen to you, you’re more likely to listen to me. Perhaps we can find ways to take a step forward together. Somewhere down the line, more changes might be needed and we might disagree on those, but at least we can look our children and grandchildren in the eye and say that we achieved something before passing the baton on to them.
But we’re never going to achieve consensus, to make those forward steps, until we reach across to our enemies, the more reasonable ones at least. As Voltaire never actually said, “I might disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” – which incidentally is the true definition of democracy, none of this “majority rule” stuff.
So not only do I stand with Jenny, I stand with those whose views I’d probably disagree with. At my age, they’re probably better off defending themselves rather than hoping I can be of much help in a street fight, but it’s the thought that counts.