The S Word


National Committee Member Sandra Mills blogs on shame and politics.  What does it mean for independence campaigners? 

Warning: This blog will use, and discuss issues surrounding, the ‘s’ word.

“Which word is that?” you ask. And I do actually quiver a bit before using it, given that the last time I used it on Facebook it resulted in a row with more than one person that lasted all day.

The word that I’m referring to is shame. It’s a concept that was almost never talked about openly during the referendum campaign in 2014, and one that is guaranteed to trigger high emotions in some people. But it’s something that Scotland’s Independence movement will need to raise and tackle, and I believe it’s not a day too late to start.

On the day of the referendum campaign, I chapped the door of a man who had Yes posters displayed outside his house. As we chatted he told me that he didn’t believe we would win, despite the poll that had put us ahead the previous week. Because of something nobody was talking about – our people’s sense of shame in being Scottish.

While it’s true that we don’t all have it (and the referendum campaign went a long way to instilling an improved self esteem in our collective conscience) it unfortunately exists and expresses itself in many subtle ways in society.

There’s the parents who say they are embarrassed by their children’s broad Lanarkshire accent, the posh English voice that tell us “Go to window number 4” at the post office. The fact that our national news is relegated to “the news where you are” as if we were another region of England like Yorkshire. The films made in Scotland by Scottish directors that disproportionately focus on crime and drug abuse. (I love some of those films, but the key here is that these themes are disproportionately represented against the whole of the films that depict Scotland.) The ‘cringe factor’ around anything that involves tartan and the Loch Ness monster.

For tourists, Scotland has a Nessie toy, for gritty films we have a drug problem. There doesn’t seem to me to be anything real about either of those depictions of Scottish life, because neither have anything to do with the Scotland I live in.

We can’t just continue to write off this as ‘too wee, too poor’ syndrome and lay it at the feet of the MSM media. They are just the automatic mouthpiece, reflecting it, magnifying it and projecting it outwards.

I have been doing some reading regarding the use of shame as a teaching tool  - yes, it is enormously destructive, and yes, it still commonly used in high schools, and yes, I used it myself many times until I started to realise how counter-productive it was. If you are interested in this topic, the link at the end will lead you to an article by Brene Brown, a leading researcher around the use of shame and the effects of it.

It got me thinking about our national consciousness and the effect that shame has on our campaign for Independence. It is now understood that shame is an incredibly painful emotion, and one that triggers many other emotional, spiritual and psychological problems. The writer, Jessie Sholl (author of Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding) says:

This emotion, which Jungian analysts have dubbed “the swampland of the soul,” makes us feel like we are worthless. To compensate, we scramble to cover up our perceived flaws by engaging in a long list of broken behaviours, including blaming and shaming others, perfectionism, lying, and hiding out. (Very high levels of shame are associated with more serious problems like addiction, eating disorders, and suicide.) Shame, in other words, causes us to act in ways that keep us from so many of the good things we want in life — a feeling of forward movement, freedom from fear, a sense of agency.

The Catch-22, of course, is that shame creates emotional patterns that make us reluctant to face it down. After all, who wants to look inward when what’s staring back is a painful emotion that makes us feel unworthy and unlovable? Ultimately, though, avoiding or suppressing this universal feeling can result in long-term emotional and physical consequences that trump the short-term discomfort that accompanies self-analysis and honesty.

When used as a teaching tool (dunce caps are no longer allowed, but think league tables, teacher rants at a whole class who’ve done badly in a test, calling out a pupil publicly for not having done homework, national testing…) shame is intended to make pupils ‘buck their ideas up’, work harder, think more deeply about their answers, study more and take their work more seriously. But shaming someone actually has the opposite effect. Sholl goes on to say:

Research, however, has shown that shame does just the opposite: It clouds good judgment, skews perception, and drives destructive and unhealthy behavior.

Is it possible that this sort of response can be internalised and projected outwards by an entire nation? Of course it can. In fact, researchers discuss shame as an evolutionary phenomenon – it is a human mechanism to keep people behaving within the boundaries of a society: obeying the unwritten rules and ensuring that nobody outwardly challenges the norms of the community. A sort of anti-anarchy, emotional failsafe.

I grew up in New Zealand, but my parents had a strong sense of being Scottish, something that outwardly looked like a love for their country. They would party with their other Scottish friends, getting drunk and doing their ‘turn’ (my mum did Northern Lights of Aberdeen and my Dad did Flower of Scotland, gieing it laldy at the good bits). It’s almost as if they were free to express their identity positively because they were in a place that was very far removed from where they grew up. In addition, New Zealand as a nation has a very high self esteem – there is a real pride in being a Kiwi, and New Zealand performs on the world stage disproportionately to its size and population. (There are many subtle problems of Empire and indigenous rights tied up in this concept as well – but this would be a blog for another day).

So when I returned to Scotland, a long held dream of mine that I couldn’t quite believe had come true, I was honestly amazed to discover that many people around me did not share my feelings of being proud to be Scottish. That quite the opposite was true. That there were things you couldn’t say, things you shouldn’t do.

There’s no doubt that marches and demonstrations are important in any movement. A show of strength is sometimes necessary to bring people together and show that we are not alone – that huge numbers of people feel the same way that we do. Sometimes we need to show the opposition that, yes, we are still here. We are still a movement, we are still fighting for our independence and we are not going to eat our cereal and shut up because, in the immortal words of the yooners ‘we lost’. But when people are critical of the marches and big events, they are not being nasty, they are not dividing the Indy movement (a movement that was divided from the beginning anyway.) They are, quite rightly, questioning whether this sort of campaigning is going to move us from 45% to the sort of support we will need to win. Marching allows us to channel our pride in being Scottish with other like-minded people, it feels great, and gives us a brilliant high, but I’m certain it won’t convince anyone who was against us in 2014.

Those of us who campaign for an Independent nation have a positive vision of what Scotland can be like. There’s lots of accusations on social media that no voters don’t love their country as we do, but from their perspective, they actually do. They just have a very different view of what their country actually is. In addition, when it comes to those who see themselves as British, we know there is little chance of moving them into our Indy camp. They are the last bastion of North Britain, the cohesive core of the crumbling sense of a ‘United Kingdom’. Arguing with these folk is futile, because they will be unable, unwilling, to consider their identity in any other way. The only healthy way to respond to these people is to not respond. Ignore them, no matter how provocative, how upsetting, how much power they claim to have. Their platform has dramatically reduced and we must start to believe they have no power, in order for that to actualise in the real world.

But there is a huge number of the population who were left behind by the positivity of the 2014 campaign. They are people who are not attracted by flags, marches and banners. Their internalised sense of shame in being Scottish will not be overcome by a Yes sticker, a facebook post, a viewing of Braveheart in the local community centre. It’s because these things do not appeal to their sense of identity. Blaming, finger pointing and guilt tripping can only make the cringe factor worse and is counter-productive to our aims.

When we have another referendum, the only way to settle the matter is to move to a level of support that reduces the ‘no voters’ to a small voice squeaking in the wilderness. We know we will need as close to 70% as we can get in order to claim a real victory.  

If pointing out to people that they have the Scottish Cringe is counter-productive, then what can we do to challenge the ‘too poor, too wee’ mentality? How do we move people from that internalised sense that Scotland will make a mess of it if given the chance to run our own affairs? How do we start to produce more positive images of Scotland on film? How do we get across that we are entitled to our own national news, and that our news is actually more important than what happens in London? How do we move beyond the problems and into a place where we can see our culture and our lives reflected accurately?

The work we did leading up to, and beyond, 2014 was only the beginning. We now need to engage in the sort of campaigning that offers a positive identity to women who voted no last time. Much of it will happen during one to one discussions and within small groups. I wish I could come up with one genius idea that would allow us to present this positive identity in a nice simple package that people could grasp instantly, but I suspect the answer will be much more like real life – complex, diverse and consisting of lots of small steps (some of them backward ones) and impossible to determine whether or not we are doing the right thing until much later on.

Any brilliant ideas on a postcard, thanks, and addressed to Women for Independence.




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