When Campaigning Turns Ugly

Why do you (in effect) support the UK-US military-industrial complex, which has killed many hundreds of thousands of innocents around the world, both directly and indirectly (which I can detail for you, if necessary)? We have an opportunity to weaken this entity considerably.

On Saturday morning I found the above comment on a link to my last blog post (which explained, among other things, why I was concerned about the way several people in Scotland are currently blaming and dehumanizing those they see as opponents.) This question was one of several from the same person, and although I answered on social media this needed a longer anwer.

Setting aside how it felt to see that question on personal level, it illustrates what has bothered me about so much of the campaigning for this referendum.

What exactly is the UK-US military-industrial complex? Presumably, by military, the writer (I don’t think it’s necessary to reveal his name so we’ll call him Tom) means the men and women of the British and USA governments and the men and women of both countries’ armed forces. I don’t deny that some of these have been responsible for the deaths of innocent people.

Those innocent deaths and abuses occurred because of the same type of reasoning Tom shows in his question – dehumanisation of the “enemy.” According to Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, people can become overtaken by a situation, and he believes this happened in Abu Ghraib (where soldiers abused suspects) as well as in his experiment. With Abu Ghraib, he extends the “situation” to include the system that created it, right up to high-level politicians dehumanising terrorist suspects.

scotIn the run-up to the Scottish referendum, we’ve had politicians yelling instead of debating. Almost from the moment the referendum was announced, we’ve also had, as I wrote in my previous post, persistent blaming of “Westminster” for all of Scotland’s ills. This is in spite of Alex Salmond writing in the Scottish Government’s January 2012 consultation document, “Scotland is not oppressed and we have no need to be liberated.” He seems to have forgotten that since, and so have many others.

I’d go further than Zimbardo and say that it’s not just a situation or system that leads to dehumanisation of opponents, and to a man posting such a blatantly bullying comment to a woman with differing views. It’s our culture of blame. It’s our culture of avoiding responsibility and of trying to make complex issues into something very simple.

We need liberating from our culture

Scotland is not oppressed and we do not need liberating from another country or from the parliament at Westminster, but we do need liberating from the type of thinking that predominates much of our everyday lives. We do need liberating from the type of culture that says heavy drinking is the way to deal with stress, with kids as young at thirteen getting drunk at weekends. We do need liberating from the beliefs that say it’s perfectly normal for politicians to yell at each other, blame and attack. And we need liberating from dehumanisation of others and by others.

We need to start looking inside ourselves, and taking responsibility for our own prejudiced beliefs and behaviours. It would be easy to dismiss Tom as a troll, which is the word commonly used for people who leave negative comments on the internet. I don’t want to do that because:

  1. Calling someone a troll dehumanises them, and is the very thing we need to stop. I’m not immune to it – a few days ago I caught myself writing the word (not about Tom.) The moment I noticed I changed it. I regularly blog about compassion, forgiveness and mindfulness, so it shows how easy it is to get sucked in.
  2. I do know Tom  – not well, but I would have said he is a decent person who wants to help others and I’ve been surprised by the viciousness I’ve seen in his campaigning.

Here’s that question again:


  • Do I support the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocents around the world?
  • If so, in what ways?
  • And would voting for Scotland to separate from the UK end that support (if it exists?)

I believe the third question is easy to answer. I wouldn’t be voting No, if I thought there was any truth in it. However, my friend, Leila Aboulela, a writer originally from Sudan who now lives in Scotland, is in some ways in a better position to answer this than I am. Earlier this year, she was interviewed in the New York Times. This is an extract from that interview, which Leila has given me permission to quote here:

Having become a voice for multiculturalism, Ms. Aboulela is concerned that the anti-imperial tone ahead of this year’s referendum on Scottish independence diminishes Scotland’s role in the former British Empire and undermines the importance of diversity.

“I am not particularly reassured about an independent Scotland’s commitment to an inclusive, multiracial, multicultural society,” she said cautiously.

In another interview, this time with Edinburgh University, in reference to the referendum she says,

“When a lot of Scottish colonial officials went out to Sudan or Nigeria, they were considered British not Scottish. Therefore they often weren’t recorded in history as being Scottish – they were recorded as being British.”

Scotland played a role in imperialism too. Like everyone, we are human, with a complex mix of kindness and cruelty within us, of love and hatred, of compassion and coldness. Voting to separate from the United Kingdom won’t change that.

How our everyday choices affect others

  • Do I support the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocents around the world?
  • If so, in what ways?

This weekend an innocent man walked free after 30 years on death row in an US jail. That was partly down to his lawyer and partly down to support from Amnesty International. I have been a member of Amnesty International for over twenty years. Yet, I do little more than pay my membership fees, sign online petitions and send a few postcards. If I were more active in Amnesty, could I help save more lives? It’s possible.

On a more mundane level, while my weekly purchases probably don’t mean life or death for anyone, they could impact on quality of life. I buy largely Fairtrade foodstuffs, and don’t buy brands renowned for unethical practices. But sometimes if certified Fairtrade isn’t available, I’ll buy what is, thinking I “need” it. I don’t. Would it really matter if I made chocolate or apple muffins for tea tonight?

Likewise, some clothes, furniture and other goods I buy are certified Fairtrade, but some aren’t. I could do more. I could write to companies asking what they do to ensure traceability of their products. I’ve done that once. Then there’s clearing rainforests to plant palm oil trees, which definitely kills trees and in the long term could kill our entire planet. I do take action, again mostly signing petitions and not buying products, but I could be doing more.

But, Tom didn’t ask me how I support the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocents, he asked me why.

Although I don’t believe I do support killing in the way he means, why don’t I do more to ensure my lifestyle does no harm? Because when I think of all it would take, it feels overwhelming. Yet, perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps that’s the type of thinking I need liberating from.

Hatred does not breed peace

To end, I’m going to return to what Leila said,

“I am not particularly reassured about an independent Scotland’s commitment to an inclusive, multiracial, multicultural society,”

Neither am I.

In blaming anyone – including the current government – we do ourselves and those we hope to protect a disservice. We don’t create change with hatred. We just get more hatred. Right now that hatred is mostly directed at the politicians of Westminster, but how long after separation till that hatred turns on people in Scotland? In some cases, it already is.

Tom’s question gave me cause to ponder again something I’ve pondered a few times. So I’m grateful for that. Maybe this time I’ll take more action to make sure I do all I can for fairness. What I won’t do though, it allow intimidating comments to change my vote. I’m still voting No.

(The photo at the top is of Skaw, on the northern tip of Shetland. I took it on the last trip my father and I made there, when he told me about his part in building RAF Skaw during World War II. That radar station, built by boys of 17 and elderly men, played a major part in protecting the lives of millions of innocents.)


  1. Wow, Yvonne, that is so well thought through. And it has me thinking about living a little by the standards I’d like to set yet allow to slip for the same spurious, if understandable, reasons you give.

    1. Author

      Thanks Geoff. My feeling is that short-term it’s far too easy to point blame at others, but all of us have blind-spots. So like you say, the reasons we let things slip are understandable, and yet… I guess we all do the best we can, and very few people wake up in the morning thinking, “I know what I’ll do today, I’ll destroy the planet and everyone in it.”

  2. WELL SAID YVONNE!!! You handled this man beautifully, eloquently, wisely, and with amazing grace and an articulate response.

    You stick with what you believe in, despite what others do, think or say.

    1. Author

      Chris, I think it’s so important that if I don’t like seeing people dehumanise others, I look to myself first. For some reason, this phrase comes to mind, “All of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” But maybe it comes to mind because it’s what so many people think we are doing. There is no us and them. There is only us. (I just wish everyone could remember that every moment, including me!)

  3. Well done Yvonne, that was beautifully written and effectively conveyed. I resonate with your words.

  4. Pingback: “Them and Us” by Arthur Deikman – a Reflection | Yvonne Spence

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