Zoomers and the Speech Police
The oddest thing to happen to me this month was my old friend and comrade Nick Durie appearing in the Daily Record as the cybernat de jour. He’d posted on Facebook attacking a Record journalist in very strong terms. Several of us told him he was being far too aggressive, there was a brief Twitter flutter, and he apologised and explained his intent. As recently as two years ago that would have been the end of it, but those innocent days are long gone now – in post referendum Scotland, our second-largest newspaper sees one activist’s intemperate rant as page 2 national news, quoting Labour as saying the Facebook post was “reminiscent of Stalinist Russia.” and distinguishing between “decent nationalists” who criticised the post and “cretins” who supported it. It’s almost enough to make me regret being one of the “decent” nationalists.
The Record’s argument was essentially that treating journalists as political actors and insulting them on social media is a threat to freedom of speech. Journalists on all sides are understandably and rightly keen to be able to write without fearing any kind of reprisal. But there is more than one double-standard at work here. Other citizens deserve the same right to freedom of speech as journalists. In the end, Nick Durie sent an inflammatory message out to a few hundred people on Facebook. The Daily Record’s retaliatory condemnation, with Nick’s photograph attached, will have been read by over two hundred thousand. Many other ‘cybernats’ have received the same treatment.
(Intriguingly, the photograph the Record used is of Nick holding a dossier of evidence of corruption in Glasgow City Council he had gathered. Somewhere out there, in some parallel universe, the Record is more interested in that topic than aggressive facebook posts.)
My friend’s appearance in the Record set me thinking about my own sense of fear when I write. It’s been growing for a while, as I’ve gained some tiny amount of power – I write articles for Bella, I sit on the advisory board of Open Rights Group Scotland. One day I might like to work in politics full time. That desire to make a difference comes with massive pressure to only express ‘reasonable’ views, to stay within the narrow bounds of what is often a delusionally right-wing journalistic discourse. What if one day I am branded an extremist in the press? What if something I tweet in anger now is used by my opponents later, out of context, as has happened to Mhairi Black?
‘Respectable’, ‘reasonable’, ‘extremist’, ‘zoomer’ – defining these words is an act of power, with the purpose of policing the borders of discussion and thought. It is trivial to demonstrate that acceptability is determined by the ideas behind words, not the words themselves. How else could it is acceptable for a journalist to call benefit claimants ‘scum’, but not for a claimant on twitter to call a journalist ‘scum’? The former is a professional with a right to their opinion; the latter is apparently a ‘zoomer’ threatening freedom of speech itself.
As political activists we do have to moderate our tone sometimes, to pitch our ideas to the centre, but we must not allow Britain’s vile tabloid press to dictate terms to us. I can think of nothing more cowardly than remaining silent in the face of injustice, failing to call out its perpetrators and cheerleaders, however noble they believe themselves to be. The day our movement hides its anger against capitalism, the union, and their terrible human cost will be a sad day indeed.
In a country where a man can starve to death in a freezing flat beside a pile of unsent CVs, perhaps it is better to be a zoomer, whatever the personal cost might be.