Battle-scarred veteran of the Culture War salutes you - Dani Garavelli bows out
I didn’t intend to write a valedictory column, given I still hope to pontificate in print now and then, whenever I have something specific to say and can find someone willing to publish it. But ending a ritual you have performed for more than 20 years tends to prompt a degree of stock-taking; and there is so much change to reflect on.
This will be my last weekly column for Scotland on Sunday. I can’t remember what my first one was on – some family-related issue no doubt, as that was my function back then: to bring a touch of femininity, and particularly motherhood, to male-dominated pages. It took several years to shrug that off, but I did, and it’s a long time since I’ve been expected to care one way or another about royal princesses. Although sometimes I do; and that’s OK too.
The most significant development has been the rise of social media. When I began, there was no Facebook, no Instagram, no Twitter. If readers wanted to tear a strip off journalists they had to do so by letter. The last “green ink” missive I received was a commentary on my commentary on same-sex marriage. “No entry to Eden” was one of the messages scrawled across the top of a cut-out-and-post copy of my work. I kept it; a relic from a bygone era.
On a personal level, social media has been a liberating force. I was dragged kicking and screaming on to Twitter by my then boss Kenny Farquharson in 2012, but quickly realised its potential. It meant a mother-of-three (oops, I mentioned the M-word) who was unable to network in the real world, could do so virtually.
And what a joy it was to be able to take part in the cut and thrust of debate. To be able to chip in my tuppenceworth while cooking dinner or overseeing homework. I liked engaging directly with readers too – the politely critical ones, as well as the supportive ones (though not the ones who called me a c*** ). I think my favourite readers are the ones who almost always disagree with me, but who carry on clicking regardless. It takes a generosity of spirit to go on consuming thoughts that run counter to your own; and for that I am ever-grateful.
It’s a rare gift nowadays, that openness to alternative ideas; that willingness to have preconceptions challenged. The downside of the internet – as anyone who has watched Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, knows – is that it has encouraged us to hole ourselves up in ideological fortresses; to build moats around our value systems, to pull up our mental drawbridges; and to fire verbal arrows at anyone with a different perspective.
Call it polarisation, call it the Culture War, but we are constantly being forced to pick teams; to tie our colours to some embattled mast: nationalist/unionist, Leaver/Remainer, pro-trans/anti-trans, pro-Salmond/anti-Salmond – binary choices everywhere, with little room for uncertainty or nuance. People want to know where you stand, and if where you stand is on some shifting middle ground, some of them will lift you up and drop you in a camp of their own choosing. As a columnist, reading about yourself is often like staring into some distorting mirror; you cannot recognise the image being reflected back at you.
Polarisation is not new. “Which side are you on, boys?” Pete Seeger demanded in Florence Patton Reece’s song about a bitter dispute between miners and mine owners in the 1930s. The song divides people into goodies and baddies; strikers and scabs. “There are no neutrals here,” he sings. Even the Culture War is not new, as anyone who remembers the “ political correctness gone mad” headlines of the 1980s will testify. But there is something particularly pernicious about the state of public discourse today.
There is so much bad faith. Branding people as “gammon” or “woke” or “Karens” dampens the impulse to explore the experiences and personality traits that make people what they are. The way we are pressured to “cancel” public figures we once admired is spiteful and reductive.
Not that I’m in any position to slag off identity politics. My feminism is at the heart of almost everything I write. And yet the performative nature of contemporary politics often jars. It’s not enough to have convictions, you have to have them on every issue to the nth degree, and to drape them round you like a flag. Wearing a poppy or taking the knee is no longer a personal gesture, it’s a public statement, a potentially career-defining choice. You don’t have to be particularly thrawn to rebel against such shallow tests of character.
The Culture War sucks our creative thought; it gnaws away at our critical faculties. It means many of us have a predetermined position on news stories even before they break. Choose any week, and you can see how this plays out.
This one was pretty catastrophic for the SNP. First, there was the row over the alleged failure of the Scottish Government to hand over documents to the Salmond inquiry. Then there was MP Margaret Ferrier’s unfathomable decision to travel by train after testing positive for Covid-19. So many of the reactions could be predicted. The furore over the production of documents was either indicative of a rot at the heart of the SNP or a tawdry distraction from more important matters. Sturgeon’s statement on Ferrier was either an unparalleled display of strength or a cop-out (on the grounds the MP was suspended, not expelled). It’s increasingly difficult to hold the position that the party is as potentially competent and as potentially fallible as any other. Or to suggest the Salmond inquiry will neither clear or indict the Scottish Government, but uncover a hotchpotch of misjudgments – good intentions, badly applied – against the febrile backdrop of #MeToo. Praising one policy, while criticising another messes with people’s heads. Everything has to be cut and dried, them or us, cock-up or conspiracy.
The Culture War is a trap for left-wing columnists too. The right drops the bait and we so often rise to it. On one level, what choice do we have? If the government stokes hatred against migrants, it is incumbent on us to call it out. Its rhetoric – embodied in the hostile environment policy – is destroying real lives and must be countered.
But then one day you hear Priti Patel “considered” sending asylum seekers to live on isolated Atlantic islands, and you wonder if you are complicit in a game in which both sides raise the stakes until the world implodes. Or you find yourself contemplating a piece on the threat to scrap Land Of Hope And Glory at the Last Night of the Proms, and you know you are being played.
Oh look, I’ve bust my word count. Again. The subs will be rolling their eyes. So, I will bid you adieu. After all these years, I need time out: to recalibrate; to think new thoughts; to look for answers. I hope I’ll be back now and again. For all the frustrations of the current discourse, I can’t imagine staying out of the fray for long.
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