Pistols at dawn and drinks for dinner: political friendships in a digital age

I recently returned from the Kingdom of Spain and have rejoiced in spending time with friends and family (if you’re feverishly monkish, this is code for ‘testing the limits of drunken decency in old haunts in celebration of being united with old comrades once again’).

One friend stands out in particular because of the ferociousness and the quality of the (occasionally sozzled) political discussions we enjoy. This acquaintance of long-standing and I will forever be locked in an epic, Highlander-esque dance along the political spectrum. We’re on it, perhaps in more ways than one, but we are, as the Joker said, “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.”

I have to stress this has been going on for years. The tribal loyalties to our respective political masters have changed flag over the years, but the essence of what we each believe and advocate has pretty much been constant. We have more in common politically and morally than either of us would care to admit, but it is viewed through the kaleidoscope of political allegiance that obfuscates nuance with partisan politics that leaves us all a bit more parochial. Without drawing the line in the sand too much, I will say that unionism, nationalism, centre-right, centre-left, left-wing, right-wing, historical tales, modern history and an endless supply of pop culture references are bandied around with the assuaging charm of two drunken sailors bartering for wine. Such is our way.

For all these differences, the camaraderie of friendship informs the debate and never lets it become ad hominem (unless in jest)I’m writing that stating the obvious, but here we come to the point of this piece.

The Scotland I came home to was fraught with warning even before I landed on her shores. Despite exile in Spain I’ve kept abreast of all debates, not least of all the fallout from the referendum and the general election, and have been continually surprised, and even warned by friends, that it is impossible to have a discussion now online without it becoming deeply personal and offensive (charges levelled against and felt by all quarters).

My friend and I suffered this fate. After too long sway and not enough face to face interaction, the digital word, social media, the Facebook post or tweet start to become a paranoid exercise. You misread and fill in the tone of the other person in your head, you lose the meaning of what they were trying to say and before you know it debates and arguments had online are in a vicious league as to those you would have in person.

Being out of the country for so long inevitably means that you lose touch with people and get the wrong end of the stick when discussing explosive issues; that’s to be expected. But neighbour and neighbour, colleague and colleague, friend and friend who are in the same country, the same city and the same street? That more people than ever in Scotland feel they are participants in the political process is a cause to be celebrated. But whether it is politics, or abusing someone online, why is it that our digital selves resemble our drunken selves with their uninhibited, adrenaline fuelled rants?

For all the cyber crime we hear on the news, people still seem to think the Internet is a private padded room where you can through yourself around as much as you like without hurting yourself or others. I do not mean to sound like an advert on bullying, but from a sociological, societal and decency perspective there is an unhealthy aspect to ‘politics by social media’ that is often ignored. It is a sad day when the pub, the hustings and the debate platform are either forgotten or viewed as straitjacket occasions; so scripted, so blindly sanguine and so predictable that they are to be obfuscated altogether.

The cost of conducting political debates, personal or official, on social media has not truly been chartered. ‘CyberNats’ and whatever the less pithy name for their unionist counterparts it is a symptom of the politics of disconnect. For all that we may feel we are more connected than ever to announce, debate and defend our opinions, there is a mountain that is lost from human contact. The happy balance has not yet been achieved  to make sure new online platforms are conducted in a manner befitting everyone in the debate. This seems to be a question requiring quick action: we can’t block people forever, particularly when election debates and even the day-to-day running of governments make increasing use of online resources. Yet the inevitable descent into personal attacks seems to be the new Godwin’s Law for Internet discussion.

Are my friend and I this vitriolic with each other online? Seldom. But is there a noticeable difference as to how we conduct ourselves, how we speak and how we debate on an online platform, public or private? Most definitely. Grandparents lament what is lost when you remove the face-to-face meeting or simply speaking on the phone. From my own experience this is shrugged off as ‘well we get to speak more, don’t we? Surely that’s good for everyone?’ But in considering this topic maybe we should judge a political debate by not on how quickly we can diatribe to each other with our perennial technology, but by the quality of respectful argument toward the human operators that have been translated into words on a screen.

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