Thursday, May 9, 2013

"You're an idiot - now go and play with something sharp" says the No campaign's champion of courteous discourse

I realise there's a slight danger of turning this blog into one long transcription of my exchanges on Twitter, and I'll try not to make too much of a habit of it, but as so many of us have had encounters with Duncan Hothersall over the years, I thought you might appreciate this one.  For the uninitiated, Duncan was for quite some time practically the one-man online presence of Scottish Labour.  Yes, even in the days when Labour Hame was but a twinkle in its Admin's eye, there was Duncan, fighting the good (or goodish) fight on Twitter.  More recently, he's taken to sternly shaking his head at the largely mythical "Cybernat hordes", more in sorrow than in anger, and exhorting them to at least aspire to his own standards of decency.  Rather like Matt Smith begging the humans not to harm the Silurian hostage, Duncan just yearns with all his heart for his hot-headed, misguided political opponents to be "better than this" - for the sake of their own souls as much as anything.

In the unlikely event that anyone took the nurturing tone of his 'advice' at face value, I fear that what you're about to read might be a bit like that moment when you first discovered there isn't a Santa Claus.

Duncan Hothersall : How is UKgov involved? Salmond wants to debate Cameron to make it look like they are the enemy.

Me : Salmond v Cameron is the choice of Prime Ministers in #indyref

Duncan Hothersall : Which is a bollocks argument and you know it.

Me : I knew you'd like it, because it has the virtue of being self-evidently true.

Duncan Hothersall : It's the ultimate expression of the false idea that #indyref is an election substitute. Current leaders irrelevant.

Me : Like Tony Blair was "irrelevant" in 2005 because he saw out less than half a term? Same principle.

Duncan Hothersall : UK elections don't pick Prime Ministers they chose governing parties. #indyref is nothing to do with either.

Me : So why do we have "Prime Ministerial (sic) Debates" in UK elections?

Duncan Hothersall : I think I have a new favourite idiotic #yesscot argument: Salmond should debate Cameron because #indyref is a choice between them as PMs.

Me : Glad you like it, but do you actually have an answer to the Prime Ministerial Debate point?

Duncan Hothersall : We had them precisely once. Are you even going to pretend you don't understand our democracy to score points? Sad.

Me : Does that mean you oppose them, Duncan? This is important.

Duncan Hothersall : Yes. Our democracy works on the basis of law, not TV programmes, and you know that fine well.

Me : So you do oppose such debates? Fair enough. On that issue and Trident, I just wish you had more sway with your own party.

Duncan Hothersall : Do you really think #indyref is a choice between Salmond and Cameron as PM? How about we clear that up first.

Me : I thought we just had cleared it up, but evidently I've missed something. Answer to your question - obviously.

Duncan Hothersall : Then you're an idiot.

Me : Ah, the famed positivity and civility of the No campaign on social media!

Duncan Hothersall : I'm being neither negative nor uncivil. Your stated position is idiocy. It's stupid.

Me : "You're an idiot." That's a quote. Bit of a stretch to say that's "neither negative nor uncivil".

Duncan Hothersall : It's an observation. Now go and play with something sharp.

Me : Hmmm. While I do that, Duncan, why don't you quietly reflect on whether you practise what you preach on standards of debate.

Duncan Hothersall : Let me just file that advice for safekeeping. It's a gem.

Me : Feel free. I'll certainly be filing the "idiot" and "play with something sharp" comments for when you next mention Cybernats.


  1. "He said, she said" stuff can be tiresome, but in the last two days I think you've brought a spotlight on perhaps the two most toxic figures in online Scottish political discourse, one on each side. And interestingly (for the tiny handful of us in this wee self-regarding bubble), they're radically different cases.

    James Mackenzie is a true zealot, viciously striking out against those on his own side he considers insufficiently "pure". A lot of people in the Greens are distinctly fascistic for a party often painted as sandal-wearing tree-hugging softies, seeing themselves as righteous crusaders, and Mackenzie is the archetype.

    As you've experienced, anyone dissenting from his hardline orthodoxy in even the slightest of ways will be shouted down, censored, silenced and smeared, often with outright lies. It's absolute fanaticism.


  2. (cont'd)

    Hothersall, though, is something much more cynical. This is perhaps the most prominent Labour-activist (ie discounting actual MPs etc) social media voice in Scotland. Yet what does he actually DO?

    His blog has carried just half-a-dozen articles in two years, none of them saying anything substantial. (The most recent is a Photoshop joke.) He wrote next to nothing for Labour Hame (ONE article since 2011) despite being involved in creating it.

    His entire contribution is snark and smear on Twitter, pumping out propaganda thinly disguised with the occasional smidgen of credit for an "approved" Nat or mild disagreement with official Labour policy to create an illusion of open-minded thinking, along with a vast outpouring of personal attacks on "cybernats". His urgent exhortations against Wings Over Scotland in particular have increased dramatically in both frequency and intensity after the site doubled its readership since Christmas to over 50,000.

    I'm always amazed at the number of independence supporters who follow and engage with him because "He's okay most of the time". And indeed, Duncan will be generally civil to you as long as he doesn't see you as a threat. But the minute it looks like you might be exerting some influence on the debate, the poison will pour.

    He's called me a homophobe, a misogynist, a racist and just about every other smear in the book except a paedophile. None of it is supported by a shred of evidence (he loves to quote things massively out of context), but that's not important.

    The key is to throw enough mud that some will stick, playing on the sort of simple-witted clown who says "There's no smoke without fire". This is why he keeps some Nats onside by playing nice - by being seen to have pro-indy "friends", it adds a tiny sliver of credence to the attacks, like when Nigel Farage points to his German wife as proof he doesn't hate foreigners.

    (I'm reminded of a heartbreaking scene from the incredible Laurence Rees BBC documentary series on the rise of the Nazis a few years back, when an elderly Jew said "We weren't scared at the start because some of the stormtroopers had Jewish girlfriends, so we thought they can't hate us all".)

    Hothersall is a nasty piece of work, but he's clever. His only job is to turn independence supporters against each other and discredit and marginalise any who might be a threat, and he gets some success with the more gullible. That's why he spends all his internet time on Twitter, rather than writing anything himself that anyone could pick holes in - his sole purpose is negativity, not anything constructive.

    Mackenzie, on the other hand, is what the Unionist side sees as a "useful idiot". He doesn't need to be strategised, because he'll damage his own side out of blind fundamentalist zeal without any prompting.

    Luckily his stock is falling as "Better Nation" disintegrates, to the point where it was reduced yesterday to printing a press release from Ken McIntosh. What was once a strong, multi-authored, multi-viewpointed site is now a one-man band propped up with a ragbag scattering of kids.

    (It's basically become the Rangers of Scottish politics, with Mackenzie the Lee McCulloch, a knackered old star playing out his declining years in lower-league ignominy surrounded by people half his age.)

    The sooner we starve both of them of the oxygen of publicity the more progress we'll make. (And yes, I'm aware of the irony of saying that at the end of a long post talking about them, but it needed saying once for future reference.)

    Don't try to reason with either of them, because neither the true zealot nor the agent provocateur CAN be reasoned with. Turn the other cheek and spend the time on something constructive instead - research, write or get out on the doorsteps. Because every minute spent in the clutches of these two is a minute wasted.

  3. These days, I very rarely get involved in any Twitter exchange which has @dhothersall in it, because there's simply no point. As Stu says, he's very clever with how he goes about his business on Twitter, especially the way he says things in such a way to make it seem like he's saying one thing, but giving himself enough wriggle room so that when you challenge him on it, he can totally deny it and turn the conversation into why you're putting words into his mouth, blah blah blah.

    I just can't be arsed getting into that any more, and I usually love a good internet spat. But the way he goes about it is totally dishonest - it's not debate, it's trolling. Folk like Duncan aren't going to be converted into a Yes vote, so you're just wasting energy debating with him - which is why he does it.

    His tweet today is a perfect example, saying "@WingsScotland's comment on @JamesKelly's blog is my new fave thing on the web. I'm a Nazi with a Jewish girlfriend." Now, anyone reading Stu's comment can clearly see that at no point does Stu say "Duncan is a a Nazi with a Jewish girlfriend." But his tweet is implying that's exactly what Stu has done. People who claim you're calling them something when you're clearly just making an analogy are the worst kind of people to debate with on the internet, because it's extremely infantile. It's about one step up from going "HAHAHAHA, you said 'member'!" when talking about Member's Bills, or "AHAHAHA, you said 'ball'!" when talking about the ball being in someone else's court.

    All of that would be fair enough if he made no pretence of being anything other than a troll, like the many folk with Union Jack avatars that bog debates down with their nonsense. But to try and make out he's some sort of standard bearer for a higher level of debate is just laughable. The fact that so many people seem to be fooled by it is why it's perhaps his greatest act of trolling of all.

  4. Rev, I'm pretty disheartened to see you broadly paint a large portion of Green's as "distinctly fascistic". Whatever your issues with James, it's not fair to portray a large portion of us as zealots.

    For what it's worth the spat between the two James wasn't pretty for neutral observers (I don't know enough of each others blog history to take a side) and didn't do much to endear people to take part in any debate. It probably would have been better handled in private.

  5. For what it's worth, David, I've always had a largely positive image of the Greens, and I've also often thought that they would be the best fit for me if the SNP didn't exist. I can't deny that the events of a couple of days ago gave me pause for thought on that subject for the first time. Is the party tolerant enough to have someone like me in its ranks, when its former head of media thinks that someone who holds my views on domestic violence (basically that DV should be treated the same regardless of the gender of victim or perpetrator) is by definition a "woman-hater"? I would hope that James' militant attitude is not representative, but the honest truth is I don't know. It has to be said that a few Greens rushed in to support him on Twitter, and I didn't see any Greens chiding him. You're the first I've seen at least taking a neutral (or non-committal) line.

    I'm slightly bemused by your suggestion that we should have kept the exchange private. Basically the central point I was making is that the Better Nation moderation policy isn't the harmless, reasonable thing that James would like people to believe it is. There was no purpose in making that point anywhere else than in public, because unless people speak out publicly, James can sustain the mythology that he only ever deletes comments for being "hate-speech". What I did served its purpose - James conceded publicly that he sometimes deletes comments on ideological grounds alone. (What he actually said was that 'what about teh menz' comments "derail the debate", but as those comments are fully on-topic on a thread about domestic violence, there's no reasonable interpretation of what he means by 'derails the debate' other than 'contaminates the debate with views I disapprove of'.)

    The other point of course is that the only reason James engaged with me for even a short time was the public setting, and his knowledge that others were looking on. If someone had challenged him on BN moderation by email or DM, he would either have ignored them, or 'declared the matter closed' as hurriedly as he could.

  6. I didn't mean take the whole thing private but certainly when it was clear it was being dragged out and not likely to be resolved in the next couple of exchanges it could have been better handled with longer messages... perhaps.

    If I'm honest, I didn't see anything particularly militant in that exchange but I don't know either of you to judge your personal positions on domestic violence. I think so long as you're both generally against violence that's fine by me. I can see the two sides to the argument but don't think either of you presented it in a good way. Perhaps there's things that have gone on in the past which I'm not aware of though so that's why I stayed out of it.

    My first impression was he just commented on something unrelated which you then used to bring up his moderation style. If something had happened previously to instigate that, I'm afraid I didn't see it. Like I say though, I'm coming at this from a neutral position and only commenting now as it seems to be leading all Green members/activists to be tarred with the same brush.

    I joined the Greens from the SNP and so far have found everyone to be pretty nice and open to different views. I'm certainly not as hardline as other Green members on environmental issues (I'm actually ok with the AWPR, though have reservations) but in general their policies fit closer to my own views - particularly when compared to the Aberdeen SNP councillors and their determination to push through the CGP.

    As a relative newcomer to the pro-independence blogs this whole episode comes across as just 3 people who don't particularly like each other, having it out in public. That's never a good thing.

  7. "I didn't see anything particularly militant in that exchange"

    Did you see the two tweets where he called me a "misogynist" and said that I obviously "don't care for women very much"? That happened after the main part of the exchange that I quoted in full on the previous post, so you might have missed it. I'm sorry, David, but it's militant to suggest that someone like me is a woman-hater simply because I don't share the radical feminist worldview on domestic violence. It's extremely militant. I won't deny that I was hopping mad with him at that point, and with good reason - I was sorely tempted to say "most of my friends are women" (because it happens to be true), but it's such an obvious cliché that I bit my tongue. But I sincerely hope you're right, and that the Greens are pluralistic enough to accept members who diverge from James' strictures on gender politics.

    "My first impression was he just commented on something unrelated which you then used to bring up his moderation style"

    It wasn't unrelated. His first tweet pointed to his experience as a Better Nation moderator as proof that he speaks with authority on the 'Cybernat problem'. I simply pointed out that in my view his approach to moderation often IS the problem, rather than the other way round.

    "As a relative newcomer to the pro-independence blogs this whole episode comes across as just 3 people who don't particularly like each other, having it out in public"

    It's hard to have a particularly favourable view of someone who goes around calling you a woman-hater with no justication, and who then bemoans ad hominem attacks by his fellow Yes campaigners as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. So yes, I plead guilty, James is not my favourite person in the world just at the moment - but that wasn't the case when the exchange started, so it can't be dismissed in that way. I've had a couple of run-ins with him in the past, mostly over relatively trivial stuff like the "2nd Vote Green" campaign, but James and I actually followed each other on Twitter until Tuesday (and had done for years), so that ought to tell you something. And it ought to tell him something as well, actually.

  8. "Rev, I'm pretty disheartened to see you broadly paint a large portion of Green's as "distinctly fascistic". Whatever your issues with James, it's not fair to portray a large portion of us as zealots."

    Fair point. It's my personal experience that they're by some distance the least tolerant, but that experience isn't enormously wide and as such it's probably an over-sweeping statement.

    In my defence, if you're willing to appoint an obnoxious, arrogant, dripping arseleak like James Mackenzie as your HEAD OF MEDIA, you can hardly be surprised if people end up with that impression.

  9. Green James & Duncan H both hate the SNP which is their problem and clouds any response they make. Waste of space in any honest debate with them because they are not interested, I am right rules full stop.