Three Years a Knave?

For three years, it’s leather, I’m told. Still, I can’t see balaich an Trust presenting me with a designer Italian handbag. I am much more likely to get a bròg.

(Yes, just the one).

Facebook has had a lot to say about the Stornoway Trust this last wee while, none of it very nice and most of it the product of fevered imagination. The fantasy version of the organisation that seems to preoccupy a small number of the electorate doesn’t actually exist in the real world beyond social media. Still, when you are largely unaware that there IS a real world beyond social media, that point is liable to be lost on you.

The most recent thing that Facebook had to say about the Trust was this morning, when it reminded me that, on this day three years ago, I was elected to serve a six-year sentence term. After a thoroughly unpleasant campaign, it felt like a dubious reward. Yes, I had entered the fray willingly, but I had not – given the low stakes – expected that people would target me so viciously. Again, this was social media, and not the real world. Indeed, the real world looked on aghast and many, I suspect, voted for me simply in order to show their solidarity with common decency against mob rule.

In any service that we give, it’s important to reflect upon why we’re doing it. The halfway point of my term gives me pause for consideration: is this how I wish to spend a sizeable portion of my time; and if so, why?

Well, the reason I stood in the first place is the same reason that I remain. I believed that I could contribute something to the running of the Trust – not as a maverick grandstanding for social media approval, but as one part of a team. Trustees function within the Trust as individuals, but outwardly as part of a homogenous entity.

We are – and many will love this comparison – like the tinker encampments of old; free to quarrel amongst ourselves, but always  presenting a united front to the world. A lot of our meetings are spent debating and disagreeing, but consensus must eventually be achieved and that, then, becomes Trust policy. On Trust policy, and Trust action arising from it, we speak as one: Trustees and staff are a single body with no prospect of divide and conquer. Anything else would be wrong.

It is this that some more vociferous elements in the community cannot accept. They try to raise individual trustees up on a pedestal, folk heroes for the masses, who have been elected to stir the pot and (hilariously) ‘sort things out’.

No one person could – or should – sort anything. It is a team effort. If you want to be that kind of hero, I’d suggest you look elsewhere to win your spurs.

What the Trust needs and, in large part, has been successful in attracting, is reasonable, committed people with a desire to put something back into their communities. Those who crave drama and dissent do no justice either to the historic organisation of which they seek to become a part, nor to the wonderful community it encompasses.

More concerning, however, than the pedestal-building, is the bullying.

During my three years, I have witnessed some disgusting displays by members of the public. One recently suggested that I simply cannot handle dissenting voices; he rapidly thought better of his comment and removed it, because he knows as well as I do that I could name and shame those who have been guilty of quite reprehensible conduct. No, correction, I probably couldn’t shame them because what they have said is so abhorrent that I believe them to be beyond the reach of shame. I can handle disagreement and, for that matter, abuse for I’ve received plenty. It shouldn’t be a question of ability to take it, though, should it?

Is this how we want to treat people in public life? Is this the side of our community that we want to show forth?Do we seriously want to make public service an endurance test where we try to break spirits and destroy reputations?  I think that everyone deserves better than the low mud-slinging melee that social media has become in the hands of the few.

The problem, however, is not with the Trust. In three years, I have learned a great deal, and I have – I hope – forged lasting friendships with people that I respect and admire. It has been absorbing and rewarding. Yes, I have much still to learn, but that’s the exciting thing about it. We deal with such a varied portfolio of activity that you never know what a day will bring.

That sounds like a ringing endorsement, doesn’t it? Yet, I cannot in all conscience recommend to anyone that they seek a seat on the Stornoway Trust. Or the Comhairle. Or Bòrd na Gàidhlig. Or the Crofting Commission.

Or any public office that the Facebook bullies have in their sights.

We can say what we like about wanting better representation and talk a good game about more women and more young people . . . but the bullying has to be addressed. I wonder how many decent, capable people are put off making a contribution to their communities because of this rot at the heart of things.

Three years on, I cannot say that the standard of discourse on social media Is better. Indeed, I think it’s far worse. They have learnt nothing. 

Nonetheless, let’s strive for something a little higher than personal attack; let’s bring back respect and honesty – and the ability to disagree with grace. Anything less demeans us all.

Votes for women – as long as they’re ‘progressive’.

Our local council is all man . . . and not necessarily in the swoon-inducing, gosh, have you been working out way a girl might wish. Of the thirty-one elected members, a nice, round number (zero) are women.

This week, some of the more hysterical sections of our community – and well beyond it – have been getting all bent out of shape about the Stornoway Trust, co-opting three men to replace . . . erm, three men. I am having to get used to being referred to as, variously, ‘only one female’ or ‘the token woman’.

Gee, thanks, none taken – are any of you still wondering why women don’t stand for election here?

I recently invited a friendly local councillor in to the college where I work, to talk to my (mostly female) Democracy students about why local government needs the likes of them. It does. 

The last time I wrote about the council election results, I was fairly sanguine, feeling that men of sense ought to be able to represent women perfectly competently. And so they ought. However, I am no longer sure that the question is actually one of representation.

In fact, I’m a raging complementarian and simply believe that we reflect God best when men and women work together. The point of women on the Comhairle, or anywhere else, is the same as the point of men – to be themselves, and bring their own unique skills to bear on the situation. 

Speaking to my class, though, the golfing (but not on Sundays) councillor put his finger on one aspect of the problem, when he mentioned the ‘p’ word, and women’s lack thereof.

He was referring, of

course, to profile. But absence of profile is only half the issue. There are plenty women currently serving their communities in all kinds of ways, who would not require Saatchi or even his partner, Saatchi, to boost their well-kentness to election standard. I went from being a shy, retiring unknown to being electable enough for the Free Church to collude with me. In my weaker moments, I fool myself that it was my skills and character that stood me in good stead, but ‘everyone knows’ it was really the suidheachan mòr that swung it for me.

See, ‘profile’ can be a burden. That’s the other, thornier half of the problem. It is also the uglier part.

If the baying mob doesn’t like your profile, they will try to dismantle it as best they can.

For me, the onslaught began as soon as I put my hat in the electoral ring. ‘Does she have a chance?’ the small-minded secularists sneered. Then, when they began to fear what they are pleased to call ‘the tyranny of the majority’ (that’s ‘First Past the Post’ to the rest of us), the nay-saying became more vicious and predicated upon hatred of Christianity. It took them places that still make me shudder on their behalf. 

But it has not gone away. The same names pop up repeatedly on social media, desperately clinging to the handle, ‘progressive’. That is, to their way of thinking, everything that is unbiblical, and against what the majority supports. If you were to ask them to define what ‘progressive’ means to them, I feel their truthful answer would be ‘anything but this’.

Now, I don’t care that much what some stranger thinks of me, when that assessment is based on a caricature of my faith and nothing more. I do, however, despise the negativity, spite, and downright lies which some are prepared to tell. And I am angry that this negative, bitter faction is polluting the atmosphere for others.

My own feeling is that, if we are truly serious about overhauling democracy in the Western Isles, we have to remove the toxicity. What example do we set our young people when we behave like the closing chapters of ‘Lord of the Flies’? Is it not rank hypocrisy to talk about eradicating bullying in our schools, while gleefully embracing it everywhere else? You can talk about progress, you can set up feminist networks, you can even pretend that, because you’ve worn a rainbow badge, you’re all about the tolerance.

But if you are complicit in the defamation of innocent people because you disagree with their way of doing things . . . well, then, you are a bully, my friend. Verbal abuse and unfounded accusations of criminality should have no part in public life. If you’ve never met me and yet you hate me, ask yourself why that is.

And then, ask yourself why more women and younger people are reluctant to stand for election. 

I have lost count of the number of capable women who have said they couldn’t handle the hatred that comes my way. No, I’m not surprised – and I couldn’t handle it either, ironically, were it not for the very faith which attracts it like a magnet. But is that really a proud boast for us as a community? We’ve lowered the tone of public debate so far that good people are afraid for their reputations.

Shame on us if we let it continue.