MP’s Notebook: online abuse

It is said that Christmas is the season of goodwill. So it was timely to find myself recently discussing with a senior clergyman and some parliamentary colleagues the way politics is debated and MPs are sometimes treated.

What got the discussion started was Brexit and the way it has polarised opinion within political parties and across the country. Those who voted leave can’t understand why it’s taking so long, and anyone who tries to point out that it is slightly complicated can be attacked for being a mutineer, a traitor or worse. And those who voted remain are really angry at all those who say that Brexit will be wonderful when they think it will be an utter disaster.

It’s understandable that with strong feelings on both sides debate can be forthright, but there is a huge difference between that and the sort of social media abuse now regularly directed at people in public life about all sorts of issues. I have looked back at some of the comments directed me in the past couple of years and it is astonishing how personal and offensive some people can be. But when you compare my experience with what many women MPs have gone through – vicious, violent and sexualised abuse – it seems almost mild by comparison.

So why do some people think this in an acceptable way to behave?

I suspect that most of those who do this online feel – wrongly – that they can ‘hide’ behind their Twitter handle. I also reckon that almost all of them would never dream of saying in person what they say online. It’s the modern day equivalent of shouting something rude through the letter box and running away.

I tested out my theory a few years ago when I got a particularly horrible letter from a man I didn’t know. For some reason he had put his telephone number on it so I rang him up. I told him who I was and referred to his letter. I could tell by his voice that he had never expected in a million years that this might happen. I didn’t mention the abuse but addressed the substance of his complaint. He was as good as gold and even thanked me for calling him.

My father had another way of dealing with this problem. When he got an exceptionally offensive letter he would write back to the address and say “Dear Mr Smith, I feel obliged to point out that someone has clearly stolen your headed letter paper and is sending grossly abusive letters pretending to be you.” He said it usually worked to bring it to an end!

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a plea for politicians, local or national, to be treated with kid gloves or to be afforded respect automatically. Not at all. Fair criticism is part of the job and it helps us to do it better. But that is not the same as vile abuse of those who serve the public.

When I was growing up my Mum used to read to us ‘The Water Babies’ by the Rev Charles Kingsley. It had a mysterious quality about it – something to do with the illustrations and it being set under water. The character who made the biggest impression on me was Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By. She was a rather stern person but she was trying to teach the characters an important lesson about how to behave in life. Treat others as you would wish to be treated.

So in that spirit, can I take this opportunity to wish you all and everyone at South Leeds Life a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


6 Replies to “MP’s Notebook: online abuse”

  1. Hilary Benn’s comments are thoughtful and consistent with a man of his stature.
    How true that society is often racked by negativity and reflected by depressing remarks that are often way off the mark and lack true understanding.
    However, being of Hilary’s generation, I remembered the character in ‘The Water Babies’ as Mrs Be-done-by-as-you-did, not
    Mrs Do-as-you-would-be-done-by.
    This clearly changes the perception of the Rev Charles Kingsley’s thought.
    Hilary’s (Mrs) is the thought of Jesus words in Matthew 7:12, whereas the Reverend (Mrs) brings a sense of punishment.

    In actuality, ‘The Water Babies’ was a satire in support of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. The book was very popular in England, and was a mainstay of British children’s literature for many decades, but eventually fell out of favour in part due to its prejudices that were common at the time against Irish, Jews, Americans and the poor.

    So the Rev Charles Kingsley was a disciplinarian in the mid 19th century and saw the idea of Darwin’s theory; survival of the fittest, being a modern standard for society at large.
    This idea is in complete contrast to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
    Jesus taught, do to others as you would be done by, whereas evolution teaches, be done by as you did.
    Evolution teaches us to fight back and hate our enemies, whereas Christianity teaches to forgive and love our enemies, as Jesus did.

    Therefore, I disagree with Hilary because ‘The Water Babies’ doesn’t portray the proper treatment of others.
    On the other hand I agree with Hilary’s good thought that we need to treat people as we want to be treated.

  2. Good piece.

    As someone on the right of the Labour Party he will be more than accustomed these days to receiving abuse from his own side.

    Corbyn needs to do something to get the far left under control. Considering how useless this government is, Labour ought to be miles ahead in the polls… something is clearly amiss, and I think the mob rule desires by Momentum is a factor.

  3. In reply to Luke Senior above: The “far left” you refer to have never abused Hilary Benn. We have of course lobbied him and demonstrated against him for his love of wars and bombing of other people’s countries. In addition for his support of Tory austerity from 2010 until this year and even now we are not sure that he really opposes austerity measures. Momentum is not a mob but thousands of people who are inspired to achieve peace and equality and feel the confidence now with good leadership to challenge racism and other forms of oppression. Unlike UKIP – an assortment of racists, homophobes and banker loving types.

  4. I don’t see what UKIP has to do with anything, to be honest.

    I don’t agree with his stance on Iraq or Syria either, but on the latter, much of the outrage was because he betrayed their dear hero Jeremy, and now more recently we’ve seen a ludicrous ‘candidate pledge’ that they’re wanting people to sign, and Unite interfering with the selection of candidates in constituencies such as Watford.

    This govt is worse than the one John Major was leading post Black Wednesday, and yet the latest opinion poll shows the Tories having a one point lead…

    Momentum want peace as long as people share their agenda. Those who don’t… some of the comments made to Tory candidates in the GE were disgusting. They’re just a bunch of thugs, like those from the BNP.

    Dangerous idiots.

  5. Luke Senior. You evidently understand nothing about the Labour movement and our democratic process. Be careful who you call thugs too please. Your former and current leader defend and support an actual racist and sexist thug and bully – Donald Trump. And when we protest against him when he comes here we will not be thugs – we will be opposing thuggery.

  6. I know that the party has been subjected to a slow motion takeover by trots and other left wing groups, who think its ok to abuse opponents within or without on social media and/or in public.

    And I also know that Momentum are deselecting moderates and installing Corbynater candidates in their place… by block voting at selection meetings.

    Elected reps should be responsible to their constituents, and should have the freedom to think… rather than being responsible (first foremost and last) to their local left wing executive.

    I don’t have a leader at present as I’m not a party member, in the absence of someone serious about reducing the size and influence of the state and tackling excessive taxation of those on low-medium incomes, and helping small businesses prosper… I don’t see much point wasting my time canvassing or otherwise.

    Someone like Daniel Hannan would be ideal.

    Trump is coming over regardless of what Owen Jones says on Twitter. I don’t like Trump in the slightest but at least he is open to cordial relations with Britain unlike Obama, and a working relationship needs to be maintained until he is likely removed from office in 2020.

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