I have written enough about how exciting and lively I find the political debate sparked by the referendum. And I’m clear in my intention to vote yes, and why (see initial post). But away from that optimism – and in fact, counter to it – I have real concerns about how we’re talking to each other, and who is getting to talk at all.
At RIC’s Inverness conference in May Jonathan Shafi spoke of the need for a ‘culture of engagement’, going far beyond the ballot box – perhaps, a mindset and social norm of active citizenship and political engagement. This is indeed sorely needed. There’s a slightly self-congratulatory narrative at the moment about the size and diversity of the yes movement, this ‘third Scotland’ of fresh and radical politics – and while I think its not entirely misplaced, there are some glaring omissions. Though meetings are events are undeniably usually packed out, there is an online bias to the yes movement’s activism, particularly in how we organise, which results in obvious exclusions. Many people don’t have internet access, and of those that do, many cannot or choose not to use social media platforms. Reminding people of this at meetings can sometimes be met with total incredulity. ‘Why on earth wouldn’t you use facebook?!’ said a tech-savvy acquaintance. Well…
There are significant class and gender exclusions, despite the excellent work of both the Radical Independence Campaign and Women for Independence. I’ll focus on the gender issues here. Recently I helped run some Women for Indy discussion group meetings up north, and the dynamics of participation (or lack of it) were really interesting.
Though most in the local Yes group were supportive, there was a fair bit of defensive huffing and raised eyebrows from some of the (male) group members at the establishment of a women’s group. We emphasised the need for a welcoming, supportive and non-intimidating space for discussing the issues surrounding the referendum, and this was sometimes taken as a criticism.
The discussion groups were really wonderful. Women who had never previously gone to a political meeting before, or had felt excluded from politics for many years came along, and spoke freely. Most of those who attended were thinking to vote yes, but No and Undecided voters also voiced their thoughts and feelings on the matter with no judgemental or unfriendly reactions – just interest, support and curious questions. There was a lot of laughter too, and all of it good-natured. And tons of cake, obviously.
From my point of view as organiser, it was this open and informal discussion that I was aiming for – not ‘converting’ the unconvinced. I am not into evangelical politics. I didn’t mind if someone left the meeting still intending to vote no – so long as they felt their voice had been heard, felt they had been able to participate in this national conversation without being shouted down, interrupted, laughed at or mocked.
Sadly, at many other meetings I’ve been to, they would have met precisely those reactions. Or at the very least, would have been told, in an uncertain and probably lengthy lecture, why exactly they should change their mind and vote yes. Anyone who thinks that lecturing, finger-pointing and repeating slogans is going to win over voters is really not doing the yes campaign any favours (and I’m sure it’s just as prevalent on the other side of the campaign).
There is unfortunately a definite gender aspect to this. Multiple studies have shown that women just stop engaging and don’t speak up once the shouty men start talking in meetings or discussions. And there’s always one, no matter how ‘radical’ the event is. A certain far left political figure known for his long and ‘emphatic’ speeches was given free reign during a Q&A session at RIC’s 2013 conference, despite him not asking any questions, just stating his own beliefs loudly and repeatedly. You could literally see almost everyone in the room slump down into their chairs, questions forgotten, contributions given up on, resigning themselves to another fifteen-minute lecture from this ‘comrade’. I have seen this so many times. Chairs of such meetings need to actively facilitate – if someone dominates the limited Q&A time, they must step in and cut them off, because it shuts down debate quicker than a stink bomb.
Exactly the same thing happened at the Inverness conference this year, with a very lengthy statement from another small socialist group. Ironically this was, I think, during the same plenary session where Lesley Riddoch pointed out, with her usual (and concise) good sense, that we need conversation and discussion – ‘show, not tell’ – instead of slogans and certainties. As Riddoch pointed out, people do not respond well to being told what they should do or think. You may think you’re right (in voting yes, in boycotting Israel, in finding religion silly, whatever) but you have to let people get there themselves! It has to be something they come to, if they do, through decent and respectful conversations. Otherwise, they just get backed into a corner – quite literally, sometimes, as finger-pointing tirades can be quite physically intimidating. People who feel backed into a corner are not going to suddenly see your point of view. They are going to put up big barricades and tell you to fuck off – quite reasonably.
At the ‘top’ level of debate on TV and radio, this grand-statement style of talking is well-established, and extremely off-putting. Riddoch writes that women are probably understandably put off by the ‘the loud words, hard knocks, claims and counter claims’ characteristic of such debates. Having women debate eachother is no magic solution either, with the infamous Sturgeon-Lamont rammy a perfect example of how NOT to engage undecided voters. Shouting about the currency or EU, stating your hard FACTS over and over again, is so counter-productive. Being extraordinarily, stupidly optimistic about an independent Scotland – or indeed, refusing to engage with the reality of this Scotland – doesn’t persuade many people either.
Though the grassroots movement is undeniably and impressively large and diverse, and good conversations are happening all over, there is still a great deal of masculine or aggressive politics at the grassroots level of the debate, which is worrying. If we want a genuinely participatory, inclusive democracy in Scotland, we need to behave that way right now.
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Women for Independence campaign for women’s voices to be heard in the referendum debate, as well as pushing for a yes vote in September. They have local groups all over Scotland. Follow @WomenForIndy