By Natalie McGarry
Last year I had perhaps the most baffling Twitter interlude of my 4 year presence on that site: an apparently well respected actress, Frances Barber, told me to “F*ck off and die”. Clearly something precipitated this, otherwise why would a celebrated luvvie react with such vitriol?
Frances Barber – in her bio – is, or was, a Labour Party member. She is also pro-union. So, what was I guilty of which provoked her very offensive response? I must have tweeted something pretty abhorrent, right? Here is the exchange, you decide:
“Alan Cumming accepts that if he lives in the US he won’t get to vote, hence he will move home. However, attempt to silence him in the interim disgusting.”
This was retweeted a number of times and must have come to Frances Barber’s attention. It certainly wasn’t directly through me – I’d never heard of her until I Googled her. She replied,
“He lives in US comes back to lecture great brave heart eh?
“He is in Glasgow starring in Macbeth actually. He is entitled to opinion & is moving home. Cute pejorative “brave heart”.
She replied, “moving home ? Hahahaha to LA”.
At this point I was still unsure who she was and wanted to find out if she – who was having a rant about Alan Cumming’s interjection in the independence debate – was entitled to vote, and therefore comment, as this seemed to be her big issue. I asked her,
“Will you be voting in #indyref? If not, why not? And what then gives you the right to express your opinion to me?
She sent back this, “you silly fool. I have every right if you display your idiocy in my time line go home to mummy”
Clearly I touched a nerve. I decided I had had enough of this particular interaction and sent this,
“You don’t follow me, nor I you. Nor would I want to. Insults are the refuge of the pathetic and inarticulate. Goodnight.”
Her response was, “f*ck off & die”. She then went on to tweet that she was being trolled by nasty “cybernats”.
This exchange is interesting – to me at least – for a number of reasons.
My initial tweet was to advocate tolerance of other opinions in the independence debate – even those of people who do not reside in Scotland. I am in favour of the franchise which has been settled upon and I believe that this decision is one for the people who live and work in Scotland, but there will be ramifications for people living elsewhere, and they have a right to freedom of expression.
Frances Barber contacted me. I didn’t initiate an exchange with her. I did, effectively suggest she was pathetic and inarticulate, both opinions I stand by on the basis of her interjection. There is no place in any debate for offensive language, or for sentiments specifically meant to insult whilst providing no illumination to the issue at hand. Frances Barber did not enter in to a debate for the purpose of a meaningful exchange, she wanted to insult Alan Cumming, and then me, and she achieved both.
This exchange with a pro-union Labour supporting “star” did not merit any comment by a journalist, or lurid headlines in a paper about the behaviour of pro-union supporters on the internet. Exchanges like this happen every day. Exchanges like this happen on both sides of the independence divide.
Even celebrities and other public figures – like MPs and Lords – can be just as irresponsible as anonymous “keyboard warriors”. It just seems that the more visible or “credible” you are, the more offensive you can be, all without any apparent ramification. Lord Foulkes manages to escape media censure despite some outrageous comments in the House of Lords and online, and the same applies to others.
It is an entirely false narrative to suggest that trolling or insults or even currently unverified “death threats” are particular to any one side of the debate. It is also false to suggest that this type of online behaviour is specific only to this debate on our future. There are many instances of disgusting online behaviour which transcend our constitutional quandary. To give any special title to these people gives them a degree of validity. Just say what they really are, which is bullies.
In the last week I have watched, dismayed, as the real, meaningful debate on the future of our country has been drowned out by screaming accusations in some sections of the media that Susan Calman suffered online abuse for a sketch which performed on the radio.
I will state my opinion here that I am not soft-skinned or in any way humourless – although a certain blogger recently suggested differently – but I actually don’t think that lazy stereotype observational comedy is that funny. My idea of satire is that it is truly observational and current and doesn’t consist of jokes predicated on observations which have been done to death. That said, I don’t despise people the right to find this funny, or to make these types of jokes. They just don’t float my boat.
Anyone who contacted Susan Calman to attempt to silence her, or to abuse her or just to heckle her is to be condemned. Too many of these incidences occur. There are too many people on the internet who feel protected by the anonymity of their computers. Usual social etiquette goes out the window as they use unparalleled access to “celebrity”, sports persons and politicians to send barrages of hurtful abuse.
I will admit there are people on the yes side of the debate who damage the reputation of the whole campaign. They would refute that because they think that their opinion is extremely important and that online we are all amateur investigative journalists in pursuit of stories and exposing lies. There are people on the same side of the constitutional debate as me that I wouldn’t want to be in the same room as, never mind share a meal. I condemn utterly the behaviours of these people and I block as many people on the yes side as I do on the no side.
I have a block policy which isn’t particularly formulaic. I block people who are offensive to me, or to others, or people who just generally irritate me. The first two are pretty self-explanatory, but the third I block simply so I don’t have to read their opinions retweeted in to my timeline. My Twitter account is my account. I am responsible to no one for what I tweet. I am not employed by any organisation with an interest in the referendum debate.
I am responsible only to my own notion of what is correct behaviour. If I wouldn’t say something to someone in person, I have no right hiding behind a keyboard to do so instead. In that same respect, it is up to me who I am happy to read in my timeline, and who I am not. And I don’t particularly care if that irritates anyone.
Last night I watched with incredulity as lawyer, blogger, Labour member and political pundit Ian Smart completely torpedoed his reputation with some of the most ill-advised and inflammatory tweets I have seen for some time. He has since continued to defend and try to reframe his initial point, but he would be better to just put his hands up and apologise and then go for a lie down. I know Ian Smart is not a racist, and I like Ian, but his tweets crossed the line from challenging to offensive.
More bizarrely, Lord McConnell not only leaped to the defence of Mr Smart, but went on the offensive; suggesting swathes of the yes campaign are anti-English. I condemn him utterly as well. He later admitted he hadn’t even read the initial tweet, but is still absolutely and resolutely condemning “cybernats” for “pack mentality” and feigning outrage. Given he hadn’t read the tweet but jumped in to defend, am I only one who thinks it is rather hypocritical to accuse anyone else of pack mentality?
I was offended because I chose to follow both because I expected a decent level of debate from them. I also expect Lord McConnell to act with responsibility given that he is an employee of the state. Futher more, I reject this pejorative attempt by some elements of the press and pro-union politicians to caption all online yes supporters with this moniker. It is cheap.
Making race a central tenet of the independence debate online is disgusting. That isn’t manufactured outrage, it is a fact. Jack McConnell should be better than this, but is emerging from this particular stramash with his credibility very much undermined. Clearly we can’t rely on elected members of unelected peers to lead with any kind of example.
The BBC have not seen fit to draw much attention to this whatsoever. It does make you wonder how far a politician or online pro-union campaigner would have to go before their online commentary becomes news worthy. Had the same been tweeted by an SNP member, they’d have been promoted to “top Nat” tout de suite, a hazy picture of them at a function where the FM can be seen in the distance produced, and lurid headlines about racist “cybernats” in our media. Don’t believe me? Fine, but I have seen too many examples of this type of lazy, armchair journalism over the last few years.
Why am I pointing fingers and making examples of people you may well ask. It is merely to construct and evidence that we all have a problem with what happens online. We need to be able to distance individual’s behaviours from their membership of any campaigns organisations. Individuals regulate their own behaviours, not the organisations they purport to represent. We have to be mature about how we react to these situations too.
I have chosen to leave myself open to criticism by using social media openly, and in the most part, it is a great endeavour. Used correctly, social media is a wonderful tool for interaction, spreading messages, campaigning and for instant updates on breaking news items. However, when people don’t respect other people’s boundaries, or the limits of decency and responsibility, they threaten the endeavour for us all.
We deserve to have an open, engaging and honest debate on our future. This is the most important political decision we will make in our lives. It would be nice to see it getting the courtesy and decency it deserves and the people demand.
And just in case you are wondering, I never did get an apology from Frances Barber, but I certainly do know who she is now.
Courtesy of Natalie McGarry – This article has been updated in order to reflect the covering of the Ian Smart racist tweet story by newspapers.