Saturday 20 December 2014

Failing to take No for an answer

One of the fundamental rules of human behaviour is that you must sometimes accept that the answer is No. Unrequited love is one of the great themes of literature. I think it is nearly always acceptable for a single person to express interest in another single person so long as it is done politely and in a suitable setting. Of course, trying to chat up strangers on a train may not go down too well. But if there is a social situation where there is some degree of interaction, it can hardly be wrong for someone to suggest that they find the other person attractive. Because we’re British we find these situations intensely embarrassing. Still at some point both men and women have to find a way to express interest in each other or else remain single. What happens if the response to the inquiry isn’t exactly positive? My answer to even the hint of a rebuff would be to run a mile, but I accept a degree of persistence can be acceptable. We know from literature, (e.g. Pride and Prejudice) that a marriage can result from a relatively disastrous first meeting. It’s alright to continue to express interest at least for a while. However, when someone says finally and definitely that they are not interested, it is best to take No for an answer. If I continue to pursue the person who has rejected my advances, I’m liable to get myself into trouble. If I won’t leave them alone and continue to press them for a relationship, I will be guilty of sexual harassment. If I follow them and try to find out about their life, where they work, where they live, who they are with, I will be guilty of stalking.

I’ve learned a lot about life online in the last two or three years. One of the things I’ve learned is that the rules of ordinary life do not apply.  People who are without doubt decent in everyday life are willing to act completely out of character while on twitter. When was the last time you swore at a complete stranger in the street? If you were discussing something with acquaintances in a pub, would you call them complete [expletive deleted] idiots? On the whole, the people I meet on the street are polite. They queue for the bus and observe the normal rules of how to interact with strangers. Online however, it sometimes feels like the Wild West.

Politics is never going to be completely genteel. People have strongly held views and it’s perfectly fine that debate is robust. Everyone has used insulting language about political opponents. When I write or tweet I accept that people have a right to disagree with me. I have a comment section on my blog and frequently discuss matters with opponents. As I remain reasonably neutral with regard to UK party politics, the people most likely to disagree with me are SNP/Yes voters.  I try to engage with opponents who choose to interact with me.  I enjoy debate and anyway what’s the point of politics if you can’t debate with those who disagree? If someone is sensible and polite, I will usually talk to them for a while. If someone starts off with insults or swear words, I’ll just ignore them. There are occasions however, when someone I’ve interacted with for a while becomes simply too annoying. Over the summer I ended up at times being overwhelmed with nationalists who kept saying the same old things over and over again. I found I simply couldn’t endure having to repeat the same argument ad infinitum. Sometimes also someone would cross a line and say something I found to be unacceptable. These people I began to either mute or block on twitter. It didn’t mean I necessarily thought they were bad people, just that I couldn’t face seeing them anymore in my timeline.

Some people block me on twitter, though it is completely pointless. I rarely if ever start a conversation with opponents. Certainly if I knew someone had blocked me, I wouldn’t go anywhere near their account again. Such people have in effect said they no longer wish to talk to me, so it’s only polite not to attempt to talk to them. Most people I block behave in this way too.  They leave me alone. There are some however, who simply won’t take No for an answer. Although I no longer see their tweets their names still appear in my timeline when they interact with people I follow.  It’s like listening to one end of a telephone and I can tell from my friends’ comments that these people continue to be abusive.  It would really help if people blocked or at least ignored them too. I peek sometimes at what is being said and it’s not a pretty sight. I don’t particularly mind insults. But when someone relentlessly continues to attack me personally months after I’ve blocked them, I begin to wonder about the kind of person who would do that. Obviously it’s a person who won’t take no for an answer. Even when you’ve said you don’t want to interact with them (what else after all is a block?) they don’t accept that but keep on behaving in the same way as before. This is the equivalent of the harassment I mentioned earlier. The trouble is that once someone begins to fail to take No for an answer, this sort of behaviour escalates. Soon they think it’s OK to metaphorically go through your bins. They go hunting for information at your place of work and try to find out where you live. This is clearly the same as the stalking I mentioned earlier. 

What is responsible for this behaviour? Partly it’s the fact that trolls cannot see their victims. It’s rather like dropping bombs from an aircraft. No-one could face doing it if they saw what happened at the other end. Trolls don’t see the damage they can do to someone. They don’t know whether their victim might be struggling in some way. They don’t see the victim and so they don’t realise the consequences of their actions. We’ve all said stupid things on twitter, but we should all always be aware that there is a human being on the end of our insults. Who knows what damage I could do if I use my words to wound or humiliate. Our lack of kindness to those strangers we meet online may have unknown consequences. Alternatively small acts of kindness may help someone who is going through a tough time. If you believe that politics is about making Scotland better, why not start by making the little corner of Scotland where you live more pleasant. This also includes the online corner.

I’ve always held the view that politics should reflect everyday life. What I believe politically should be reflected in my everyday actions. Of course, government has a role, but if you want to live in a kinder, fairer society, start by being kinder and fairer yourself.  I can’t help thinking that one explanation for the persistence of trolls is that they have been told by the people they admire most that it is quite all right to not to take No for an answer. If it’s fine on a national level not to accept the will of the people in Scotland who said No, then it naturally makes it easier for someone to consider it acceptable to refuse to take No for an answer when an opponent like me blocks them. A tiny number of nationalists behave in this way, but the political policy of failing to take No for an answer has ordinary life consequences. The SNP decided that No did not mean No. Some of their followers will consciously or unconsciously think that this means that they don’t have to take No for an answer online. Others may likewise refuse to take No for an answer offline. Just like the plane dropping bombs the SNP cannot see the damage that they are doing. Their failure to take No for an answer has poisoned this country. It’s like we’re all still stuck in some sort of eternal recurrence. We’re stuck on the 18th of September. There’s continual low level tension, because no-one knows what will happen next to our country. We, who campaigned so hard to achieve a decisive No victory, find our victory under assault every day from those who refuse to take No for an answer. We were not even really allowed to enjoy our victory for more than a few days before the attacks began. The SNP have stirred up our fellow Scots to such a pitch that it seems they will stop at nothing to get what they want. My No vote  counts for nothing in the face of this assault. The No side of Scotland feels like a village awaiting the arrival of Viking berserkers.

When we have elections we have to wait a certain number of years before competing again.  If I don’t get the government of my choice in May I’ll have to accept the result for five years. A referendum is different from a General Election. It will be held much less frequently. It is this that distinguishes a referendum from an ordinary election. For this reason, if we have another referendum on the EU after 42 years and UKIP loses, it would be morally disgraceful and antidemocratic if they continued to campaign for that goal. But the Kippers know this. They accept that they only have one chance. They are democrats.  

Trying to overthrow the result of an election is undemocratic, but so too is trying to overthrow the result of a referendum. This violates the norms of democratic behaviour. When people act in this fashion it angers me. It makes me fight still harder against such immorality. The failure to accept that No means No, is deeply offensive.  This is the case politically and personally, online and offline. It is as morally culpable as the troll, who is blocked who continues to insult, who continues to stalk.

If you like my writing, please follow the link to my book Scarlet on the Horizon. The first five chapters can be read as a preview.