Thursday, 12 January 2017

How a twitter spat reminded me of the decency of strangers - my Catholic Universe column

With the frivolities of Christmas now subsided many of us are feeling a little blue.

As bills fall due and payslips don’t seem to go as far, and as hopes for a White Christmas give way to grumblings about having to defrost the car on January mornings we all feel a little miserable.

For some it seems like we have a hangover from a year long period of recklessness. We had our fun of voting for Brexit and removing a Prime Minister whilst watching our American cousins elect a somewhat unusual choice of President, but now we all have woken up to the stark reality that we have to make our choices work.

It’s very easy, as this long winter goes on, to feel depressed and a little cynical. Especially about politics.

So this week, if I may, I would like to tell you a little story about me which happened over Christmas. A story, when I look back at it, that reaffirms my belief in the sheer decency of human nature.

I am very conscious that this story doesn’t particularly show me in the best of lights, for which I apologise. As I have said many times before we all err from time to time, the measure of us all is to try and learn the lessons when we do.

This is a story of our time. It played out entirely on social media, a place where we somehow find it acceptable to say things that we would never dare to a person’s face, it is a story about a woman I have never met and probably never will but who quite by chance reminded me what humanity is about. In these pages she will remain entirely anonymous but you can rest assured her decency will remain with me for a very, very long time.

It all started with one tweet. For those who do not use any form of social media Twitter is an entirely alien idea. The website allows you to ‘microblog’, in short anyone can post messages to an audience of indeterminate size, either under their own name or anonymously, as long as that message is no longer than 140 characters.

Imagine that? How difficult is it to make an argument in a balanced reasonable way in what is essentially a fairly short sentence? I often have difficulty trying to do so in twelve hundred words!

But one tweet is all it took, a tweet by me which I knew would cause offence. I knew whilst it wouldn’t antagonise the vast majority of readers there would be a certain type of activist on the fringes of the Labour Party who would be incensed beyond belief.

I knew I shouldn’t go out intentionally and bait this subset of Twitter users but in that period of idleness between Christmas and New Year frankly I had nothing better to do.

So when I saw a campaign starting amongst some of Jeremy Corbyn’s most ardent supporters calling for the removal of Labour’s Deputy Leader from his post for someone altogether more pliable I tweeted one very short comment: “The loony left are calling for Tom Watson to be replaced by Angela Raynor. It’s as though they want rid of any last vestige of competence.”

That tweet really was all it took.

To me and I am sure countless others the term ‘loony left’ is completely anodyne, it’s shorthand for extremists on the edge of the political spectrum who were prevalent amongst Labour Party politics in the 1980’s and once again are now.

But to a small subset of activists it is a phrase that is dynamite, it’s the worst possible slur on them and in a condescending fashion which they often adopt it is grossly offensive to anyone suffering from mental health problems.

As I tried to explain to user after user that in common parlance ‘loony left’ is no more a slur on mental health as walking into my son’s bedroom and saying ‘it’s like Bedlam in here’. User after user, nearly always the anonymous sort, told me how reprehensible I was.

Now as I said at the outset of today’s column I did all of this because, to be frank I didn’t have a lot else to do on a dark winters night. I knew what I was doing and quite aside from the fact that my point was, to my mind at least, right I made it in a way which was going to stir a hornet’s nest.

And then I received the perfect tweet, a woman who in fairness was not hiding behind a shell of anonymity, who had taken my bait so perfectly.

The woman messaged me ‘As a psychotherapist I could really tear you apart, but I can see now you are an idiot…’

I had so much fun. I asked if calling me a idiot was suitable language for a psychotherapist? I asked if tearing me apart was some sort of superpower which came with the job? In short I was being a bit of an idiot but, I reasoned, so was the woman who had messaged me so all was fair in love and war.

Completely understandably the lady in question blocked me from any further interaction but I wasn’t for one second expecting what would happen next.

The very next day my ‘psychotherapist superhero’ managed to track down an email address for me and contacted me quite out of the blue.

It was a beautiful letter that made me think afresh and I am not for one second ashamed to say that it moved me to tears.

It transpired that my correspondent had received some bad news earlier in the day herself and she too had been thinking about our conversation. She wrote ‘That terrible news put all in perspective. Twitter is ugly, in my opinion, all social media really and can get the worse out of people.

It doesn't matter how I might have disagreed with you, I want to apologise to you for calling you an idiot: I had no right to do so, no matter how angry I might have felt, I do not know you, I do not do that normally.

I blocked what I perceived as unkindness and mockery of me, I did not want to block you! I felt bad. I wrote words out of anger…

I hope you will accept my apologies for what they are. Anyhow, I won't read it, As I said, I do not want those angry feelings inside me, so is twitter goodbye the minute I send this. I wish you and your loved ones all the best for the new year, top must be health and happiness.’

Out of a childish, manufactured spat I had received this beautiful email which without hesitation I wrote back accepting this lady’s generous apology and offering my own to her which she in turn accepted graciously.

In my reply I made an observation which for me at least is the most important lesson I learned last year, and one I am still to grasp fully. It is this: ‘When I left the Labour Party in September I was invited on the the BBC Sunday Politics show (just the regional edition I hasten to add) to explain my reasons for doing so. In a pre-recorded piece taken at the party conference Jon Ashworth, a decent member of the Shadow Cabinet, commented about me 'Leon has picked the wrong enemy, Jeremy isn't the enemy - the Tories are.'

My immediate response was this: The Tories are not the enemy, they are the opposition and we should treat them with the respect of someone who is decent but holds different views.’

Isn’t that the key point for all of us? There isn’t enough respect anymore. The world of social media, a Pandora’s Box which we cannot close, truly does bring out the worst in us.

We all fail from time to time but it doesn’t harm whatsoever to be reminded every now and then of the better angels of our nature.

There is so much good in people of all faiths and races and political persuasions that every now and then we need to step back and recall the things, the human decency that the vast majority of us have in common.

Have a wonderful week.

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