A British politician is the subject of controversy following his decision to post a Twitter message that included personal insults.
A senior British parliamentarian, Pete Wishart, is at the center of a media storm following his decision to post a political meme on his Twitter account that included profanities. While the post has since been deleted from his Twitter timeline, the tweet continues to be circulated online by other social media users. A screenshot of the meme has also been included in news articles. Scotland will go to the polls on May 4 to elect politicians to represent all thirty-two local authority regions across the nation, and these are headlines that could impact support for Wishart’s party — the Scottish National Party (SNP).
The meme in question is a mock ballot paper that is reportedly based on a sketch of a popular BBC program called Chewing the Fat. The ‘ballot paper’ labels candidates based on their support for Scottish Independence. For example, a candidate for the SNP is referred to as a “Greatest Guy”, or “Really Really Good Guy”, while other candidates that support parties that are in favor of the UK remaining intact are given names such as “W—k”, or “Absolute Total W—k”. Whether the meme is viewed as comedic or not, it is an extreme example of partisanship.
Pete Wishart is a high-profile British lawmaker, and has also been a public figure for a long time. He was the keyboard player for the Scottish band Runrig, and is also one of the members of the House of Commons rock band, MP4. The scandal surrounding Wishart’s decision is no doubt deeply embarrassing for the leader of the SNP. The leader of the SNP and Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is just back from a highly publicized state visit to the US. Sturgeon’s assertion that she is seeking a second independence referendum for Scotland that is courteous and respectful is being mocked even more in light of Wishart’s behavior by some commentators.
The rhetoric used in the meme could also be fairly criticized, as the language is of a masculine nature — candidates being referred to as a “guy”, and terms such as “w—k” are usually directed at men. Considering that Nicola Sturgeon owns the crown as the first women to lead the Scottish Government, there are many voices who will take issue with Wishart’s decision. The disproportionate number of men in British politics remains a polarized issue in the UK.
At the time of writing, Wishart is showing very little remorse for his actions, and has taken to Twitter to assert that the post was intended to be comedic, and that the press are more or less making a mountain out of a mole hill. In a relatively similar vein, some politicians in the UK are challenging the media in a fashion that we are witnessing today in parts of American politics. Wishart is not immune to scandal, and has often been referred to as a loose cannon for the SNP. In 2014, he put up a “Merry Christmas” post on Twitter, and referred to those who didn’t support independence as “nawbags”. That phrase is a take on another Scottish slang word for a part of male genitalia.
In the spirit of The Sound of Music, some critics of the politician have used phrases such as: “how do you solve a problem like Pete Wishart?” Yet, he is just one clog in the wheel of life when it comes to problematic online activity. In recent years plenty of politicians — across the spectrum — have come under attack for some online commentary. A Labour lawmaker in 2014 was accused of “snobbery” and for an invasion of privacy when she posted a picture of a modest house, with the St. George flag draped over the windows, and a white van in the driveway. Many commentators viewed that as an insult to working class people. Last year, a Conservative lawmaker was criticized for posting a Twitter message that made reference to the British Empire in light of the UK’s success at the last Olympic Games. The negative consequences of former British colonialism are well known, including the atrocities inflicted on victims. It was also viewed by some as overtly nationalistic, and arrogant to other nations.
In recent years, the SNP has come under much criticism for some of its lawmakers and supporters online activity. There are, of course, many SNP lawmakers and supporters who conduct themselves with civility. The debate surrounding toxicity on social media also came to the fore again when it was reported that a Scottish Labour politician, Anas Sarwar, was sent a Twitter post that included an image of a hangman’s knot with the caption: “28 days until the electorate pull the trapdoor on your councils.” Another high-profile political figure is Natalie McGarry who has been suspended from the SNP due to a criminal investigation, and she previously wrongly accused a unionist supporter of being a “Holocaust denier” online.
McGarry also infamously got into a Twitter squabble with JK Rowling, and even posted an altered image which made it look like Rowling had commented on a vile post by another social media user, and called him “a good man”. It did not take Inspector Gadget to work out that she attempted to defame another person. No one should do that to anyone, but doing that to the writer of the Harry Potter series is an epic PR fail for the lawmaker, for the Scottish independence movement, and British politics in general. Considering the societal problems pertinent in British society, such as racism, sectarianism, social class tensions, and xenophobia, it is far from helpful when influential lawmakers cannot conduct themselves properly online. It is also very unhelpful for civil discourse when other social media users, across the political spectrum, start hurling personal insults and perpetuate myths.
Politics, of course, has always been a contact sport of sorts. For years, politicians of all hues have patted their own heads and glorified their parties perceived successes, while blaming opposition parties for supporting so-called bad policies, or not being patriotic enough. Yet, there is a complete difference between ideological differences, and a complete lack of appreciation for civil discourse and decency. Decency is something the vast majority of children are taught from a young age. As humans we learn early on in life that with rights come responsibilities, and there are consequences for bad behavior. One ultimate consequence is being arrested by law enforcement. While political tensions have increased in countries such as the UK and US in recent years, bad behavior by some politicians is not new. The difference today is that viewpoints and images can be so widely shared around the globe, and can influence dynamics in society.
Validating a Twitter post by referring to it as comedy is scraping the barrel. They are lawmakers, not controversial stand-up comedians. Trump’s showman behavior remains an inconvenient truth for some, and the number of Republican figures who used the phrase “locker room talk” was (and is) socially dangerous. It is an inconvenient truth for some on the left that Hillary used the term “superpredators” in 1996, when referring to children from so-called “gang” neighborhoods.
While partisanship has been part of society throughout the generations, it ends up being wholly problematic when issues relating to bad or questionable behavior arises. Some politicians are quick to call for other opponents to resign (or be sent to jail), yet often find every way under the sun to try and defend the indefensible. Politicians are not that different to others in society. They make mistakes, they have histories, they have flaws, and as public figures, they have a team of people ready to try and shame them for political capital. There is a big difference between a politician making an unintended faux pas or freudian slip, and putting up childish insults on a social media site. There are so many issues that the US and other countries in the world need to be tackling: the economy, education, college affordability and access, constitutional issues, global terrorism, and international development. While we have freedom of speech in the UK and the US, and while political correctness at times goes too far, it is more than embarrassing to come across some Twitter activity that is completely toxic. A proper apology would also be more than helpful, for a start.
While the last independence referendum in Scotland was, overall, conducted through due democratic process, there were instances of intimidation and violence from a minority on both sides of the debate. If Sturgeon is serious about holding another referendum, she needs to get some members of her party in line. If that means removing the party whip, or perhaps calling for a resignation, then some in society would view that as a step toward cleaning up politics from nasty divisions and social irresponsibility. It is also important that parliamentary standard committees and other independent bodies really start to address what is acceptable content for a politician or party to promote online, and in other spheres.
Bill Clinton famously asserted “It’s the economy, stupid”. New phrase for 2017? “It’s common decency, stupid”