This article was written before the tragedy in New Zealand and my first thought was to ask to remove it from this edition. Then I heard Sadiq Khan in an interview on Channel 4 point out that it's not only extremists spreading hate on social media but supporters and members of mainstream political parties. Rather than remove or edit it, I would like to clarify my main purpose in writing it which was to appeal to those who persistently post political content which is angry and sometimes hateful in its sentiment to consider rewording their message so that it conveys their concern in a compassionate appropriate tone.
Carl Rogers, an American psychotherapist, had this crazy idea that we all start life like a seed at the centre of our own universe and given sufficient nutrients and water and light, we will grow into the most perfect version of ourselves. He was convinced that we did not need moral direction imposed on us by some religion or ideology and will grow up as good people with sound judgement if we grew in a happy environment with sufficient genuineness, acceptance and empathy.
I first heard this theory about 20 years ago and I immediately wanted to believe it. The idea that 'good' was innate ran counter to the religious idea I had been brought up with of original sin – a creature with a natural tendency to be bad who needed to be told what was good. Rogers 'deprecated the use of compulsion as a means of altering personality and behaviour' in favour of helping people grow back to their natural self. It could be argued that this person-centred philosophy is at the heart of the Disney Pixar morality tales which are steadily displacing the religious stories us old folk were brought up with.
I still want to believe Carl's theory. I like to think that most adults around me can be left to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong. While I have a political orientation which I am happy to share, I do like diversity of political opinion and have no great desire to impose my political orientation on others. 'What a liar' I hear Pinocchio whisper.
When it comes to race, religion or sexual orientation it has become taboo to disparage some characteristic or in any way pressure another person to be anything other than who they are. We let people grow into themselves. But we have not stopped telling others what their political orientation should be or insulting it if we do not agree. This is particularly obvious on Facebook. People will make jokes like 'The only good [Insert Political Orientation Here] is a dead [Insert Political Orientation Here]' or 'F**k the [Insert Political Orientation Here]' and think that is fine. It's funny. It's a laugh.
I remember at Strathclyde University in the 1980s a significant number of people still used inappropriate terms, and students chanting in the bar 'Dinah, Dinah show us your vagina', when a young woman standing for NUS president entered. That involuntary outburst from our inner chimpanzee.
The core of society has moved on since then at least around these issues. People came to understand the hurt that this language causes, and this has stopped them from laughing. Using racist, sexist or misogynistic language is unacceptable. People have learned to be 'politically correct' – an incongruous term if ever there was one.
When it comes to expressing hatred or intolerance of another political orientation, the core of society has not
moved on. The murmuration may even have flocked backwards. This could be understandable if the political orientation objected to is some violent or malign extreme, but is it really fine to talk about people of mainstream political persuasion in this way? No one in mainstream politics wants the poor to get poorer or the sick to go unaided.
Looking out from the darkest corner of the issue, very much more often the pressure Facebook exerts on our behaviour is in the form of a 'shared' mocked-up poster with a sometimes pithy, sometimes rambling statement created by some local association in this or that political party. It presents the reader with some unverifiable 'fact' or 'facts' that are meant to shock or amaze along with the conclusion you are to draw as if you cannot be trusted to figure it out for yourself. Occasional posts are attacks on named individual politicians we are clearly meant to hate. Others are weird rebuttals of accusations never made.
The facts stated in these online posters are always open to debate, but what is not open to debate is the singular fact that the person who shared that 'share' wants you to believe what they believe. So much so, they are willing to employ, or at least turn a blind eye, to emotional blackmail and occasionally twisted and distorted facts to make you do so again and again each and every day. It seems to me that a small but significant number of social media users or perhaps simply 'people' are unlike Rogers, still drawn to the use of 'compulsion as a means of altering personality and behaviour'.
It could be because they love you and they will feel closer to you if you draw closer in mutual belief. They want you to believe what they believe because they really think it is true and when you do too you will be better friends and together you will make the world a better place. Quite right! Who does not want to do that? It could be they are activists. They do not give a tuppence about you and are barely aware that you are one of their 500 'friends' and to them you are just a switch on a robot that they want to flip so it makes an x in the correct box on a ballot paper with a robotic hand.
In the external world they simply want to distort democracy in their favour, but in their internal world they are satisfying the insatiable desire we all have to influence the things around us. A desire that could not be more hardwired. These people simply cannot stop themselves doing it. Add into that mix that there might be money involved. That their post might be favoured for display because it is being paid for. Perhaps unknown to the original poster, they have said something that a political customer wants to pay to promote. Both the poster and the reader have been bought and sold in Facebook's pitch-black market which, according to a parliamentary report is run by 'digital gangsters'.
I made the mistake of asking a question in the comments box below one of these online mocked-up posters. I did not challenge the assertions, express any kind of opinion at all in fact and asked plainly what rights I would gain in exchange for the rights the poster ultimately proposed to remove. I thought I would get a plain reply. Instead I was saying something 'Tommy Robinson' might say or repeating something I had overheard in 'Ibrox'. This from a person whose political orientation I think may differ from my own by only a few arc minutes.
Coming from West of Scotland Catholic roots and having paid my Amnesty International membership for 30 years or so, these remarks stung. Not a lot. I have friends who are Rangers supporters. What stung most was the existence of the desire to sting, apropos of nothing but the desire, and that an onlooker cheered with a 'Like'. A 'Like', like a virtual cheer round a pathetic virtual coliseum as a virtual slave got hit in the face for doing virtually nothing, which indeed is what we were all doing. It seems it is not only fine to insult a person of another political orientation, it is a pleasure and it brings pleasure to onlookers.
These taunts are nothing compared to those that MPs, MSPs and MEPs regularly read I am sure, and while the victims are vocal in calling for it to stop, party leaders seem to do little, as if these online bullies serve some useful purpose.
Rogers had a fear that as our understanding of human psychology increased, that understanding could be used not only for good but also for bad. One fear he had was that a world could come about where people felt like they were free, but as their desires, wishes and ambitions were being manipulated and set by others, their sense of freedom was an illusion. This exploitative application he was afraid of has existed in commercial advertising for a long time, but I think it is now possible to see it running wild in modern online political campaigning where the electorate, rather than telling politicians what they want, are told by politicians what they should be asking for. We are told what our desire should be and then we exercise our freedom by going on a march to demand it.
I'm sure I'm not the only one who has come to the conclusion that we would probably make better decisions as a democracy if political campaigning was reduced and people were left to think more for themselves.
What happens in the virtual world spills into the real world: people pass each other in the supermarket if they are of an opposite political persuasion and old friends stop going to the pub together. Volunteer groups get smaller to be left with only those of the same political persuasion. It's almost as if the only thing that would unite people again would be for them to have some kind of confrontation leading to some kind of victory and some kind of defeat finally proving one or other was wrong. But of course, it could never actually be final.
The day after one referendum I had an experience where I thought someone I knew quite well – a local activist – ignored me in a supermarket because he thought I had voted oppositely from him. In the spirit of Carl Rogers, that our views are all person-centred, I knew I could be 180 degrees wrong. Only when I felt ignored for the third time did I raise a hearty 'Hello, I know you!'. It seemed to require some effort for him to lift his head as if it was filled with lead, and as he looked at me, for that sad twinkle in time, black people sitting at the front of a bus, gay people in the army, a woman in the ancient golf club – that idea of exclusion – flashed through my mind. I felt that my friend pushing the other shopping trolley thought we belonged in different societies. It's not Facebook that has done this to us, it's our politicians. Those people we keep calling names.
It could all have been in my imagination and my fellow shopper was, as he professed, off 'thinking about something else'. That was Carl Rogers' most profound conclusion: that in human interaction at least we do not have access to actual reality, as there is none, only to our own personal reality, but somehow in realising that fact and remembering that fact and keeping that fact close, we can move on and a destructive confrontation can be avoided. Better. A deeper peace can be found.
This idea of different person-centred realities did not originate from an American psychotherapist. It must have been around for a long time being understood, remembered and forgotten over and again. Robert Louis Stevenson described it beautifully:
We could come to no compromise as to what was, or was not, important in the life of man. Turn as we pleased, we all stood back to back in a big ring and saw another quarter of the heavens, with different mountain tops along the sky-line and different constellations overhead. We each of us had some whimsy in the brain, which we believed more than anything else, and which discoloured all experience in its own shade.