All who take the sword: the fourth arena in the war of ideas

Politics has long been a career choice in which those involved are expected to be both thick-skinned and yet, capable of getting under the equally thick skins of others. However, whilst some of those politicians may have envisioned tough questions from the opposition’s ranks, or even unfounded accusations in the media, few may have been prepared for the newest arena of the ideas-war – the internet.

On Thursday 26th November 2015, David Cameron set forth his arguments in favour of extensive British military operations in Syria, and in a vote a week later, on Wednesday 02nd December, politicians voted in favour of military action. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has repeatedly and explicitly opposed this, but gave his politicians a free vote on the matter. Whatever the result, it was always going to be contentious, with strong supporters and detractors on either side. In the end, sixty-six Labour MPs voted in favour of bombing Syria, and somewhat predictably, Twitter lit up.

In a strangely ironic move, groups committed to peace began publishing lists of MPs that had voted in favour of bombing. The stated goal of the campaign was to have those MPs deselected, but in real terms, it triggered a number of attacks on those individuals. Some received pictures of dead babies, whilst others were sent threats of violence and murder. According to the BBC,

Labour MP, Ann Coffey, says she was sent messages from an email account previously used by Momentum, before Wednesday’s vote, branding her a “warmonger” and saying she would have “blood on her hands” if she supported bombing.

When MPs began to speak out about the behaviour, another campaign group, Stop the War (which until recently was chaired by Jeremy Corbyn himself) responded with:

Stop the War condemns the whining complaints from those MPs who apparently do not like being lobbied. If an MP is not robust enough to withstand emails and tweets, they should really not be voting for bombing other people – those who wish to be alone with their consciences would do better to consider a life of religious contemplation. Stop the War will continue to hold to democratic account all those MPs who vote for war.

I probably don’t need to point out the use of “whining” to belittle the experiences of people being sent abuse, nor the use of “emails and tweets” to minimise the contents of those messages, nor the victim-blaming tactic of suggesting that those who can’t take abuse shouldn’t be MPs, nor the multitude of sins that “hold[ing someone] to democratic account” can cover. (Indeed, I have to wonder how they would respond to the fact that even some of who are against bombing have received abuse?) These abuse-minimising and blame-shifting strategies are depressingly common in other kinds of online data that I’ve analysed, too, so overall, as a response to the situation, it doesn’t reflect well on this particular group.

Moving on, however, this particular issue – military action in Syria – is especially difficult. The situation it revolves around is, quite literally, life-and-death for people in another country, and possibly also here. The consequences will stretch into future generations and the seeds sown by this action could even ignite the last world war we are all ever involved in. This is the most extreme scenario, but it has the shadow of possibility hanging over it. Inevitably, then, the matter has engendered strong feelings, and equally inevitably, that has led to increasing volumes and ferocity as people strive to be heard.

I think many of us would agree that a democratic society should not silence voices, even when those voices express dissenting, unpleasant, or unpopular opinions. (There is no obligation here, I should note, for anyone to listen to, amplify, or respond politely to those voices.) But on the other hand, each person who utilises their right to freedom of expression also takes on the fundamental responsibility to ensure that their words do not breach the rights of others. This includes the right of others to their freedom of expression, and also to their safety from from harm and abuse, whether verbal, psychological, or physical.

We have far too much evidence pointing to the fact that heated and emotive rhetoric – whether from terrorists or campaigners, prime ministers or celebrities – can intensify the hostility of a situation, and encourage divisive, discriminatory, and even violent thoughts and actions. Many people can be encouraged into viewing others as sub-human, resulting in them not extending help when those others desperately need it. As a consequence, through nothing more than inaction, hundreds of thousands can die in war-zones and through famine or disease. A smaller proportion of people may feel compelled to take non-physical, but still morally ambiguous or illegal action in the form of sending abuse and threats, doxxing, hacking, and so forth. And a smaller minority still are susceptible to being motivated into direct action, such as carrying out physical, offline attacks – whether these are assaults in the street or mass-shootings at a music concert.

The point here, to misquote Martin Luther King, is that extreme rhetoric will not cool extreme rhetoric. Each one is likely only to inflame the other, and to breed greater polarisation and entrenchment. The longer that rhetoric goes on, too, the greater the possibility that someone will take the words literally, pick up a weapon, and carry out an atrocity. There are no constant conditions in politics and in the midst of a crisis, it’s predictable that each interested group will take advantage of the appearance of disorder amongst their opposition, but at the same time, just as there are rules even in the arena of war, there should also be some sense of what is and is not an acceptable method of bringing an issue to the fore, or campaigning about it in the amphitheatre of politics.

Years of wrangling could produce an endless list of DOs and DON’Ts, but given the situation of this past week, just one item for that list might be something that addresses deliberately invoking abuse-by-proxy. In such a scenario, a group or individual sets up a situation in which they can reasonably foresee that others will carry out unacceptable attacks on their behalf. In other words, they don’t carry out any attacks themselves – they allow their supporters or other innocent bystanders to wade in and do the dirty work.

Some would argue that in restricting just how far people/groups can go in the expression of their views, we run the risk of infringing on that most democratic principle of free speech. In response, though, consider this: if an MP is voting based on the views of the majority of their constituents, then how is it democratic or representative if a small pressure group with a different opinion manages to undo that vote? In short, one’s right to freedom of expression does not also entail the right to drown out or silence others, and certainly not to put them in harm’s way. Otherwise, this is no longer a democratic system at all – it is simply censorship carried out under the guise of freedom of expression, and that way, a dictatorship lays.

 

Footnote

In the interests of complete and honest disclosure, I am strongly against military action in Syria, and was utterly dismayed that it has gone ahead. However, I am also strongly against (a) a system wherein individuals/groups with disproportionate power and/or leverage get more say, and (b) a system in which any difference of opinion whatsoever is met with abuse or threats of violence. In the event that anyone disagrees with (b), whilst I am not remotely religious, I think Jesus probably hit the nail on the head pretty well with this: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” In other words, if you use mob-attacks and underhanded tactics to get what you want today, don’t be too surprised if you find those same strategies being used against you tomorrow.