How diminished we are by the labels that people attach to us or we attach to ourselves. And how forcefully that has been brought home to me during the referendum campaign. Nationalist, Unionist. Yes, No. Scottish, English. None of us is ever just one of these things, yet one might today be forgiven for thinking that almost every front door in Scotland is painted in the colours of either the saltire or the union jack.
I am no more defined by my views on Scottish independence than are any of the people who, for example, put opposing points of view in their comments on last week’s post. Yet it’s convenient, particularly for a lazy, cynical and superficial mainstream media, to place us in one or other of the boxes because we then cease to become individuals and can be collectively demonised, according to taste and with relative ease of conscience, as nutters or fearties.
Yet we’re really just four million individual voters (see how easily the labels come), each struggling for him or herself to make personal sense of what we may see as an historic moment of threat or opportunity, depending on our perspective. As well as voters we are doctors, lawyers, business owners, care workers, farmers, fishermen, artists, shop assistants, social workers, gamekeepers, musicians, bus drivers, consultants, restaurateurs, landowners, postmen or women, students; we represent the whole gamut of activities that create a society. We’re also parents, children, siblings, relatives, as well as house owners or tenants, town or country dwellers and so the list goes on. And for most of us, 18 September is simply one preoccupation among many, even if a fairly major one.
We all wear many labels in our lives. Most of the time I call myself a writer, for example, but that’s probably less than one tenth of who I am. The fewer labels we wear at any given moment the freer we are to really listen to one another, but when we are behaving as members of a group we feel more obliged, in the interests of the common cause, to assert the doctrine, whatever it is.
Such is the thinking that has sparked a wonderful initiative that goes by the name of the Bus Party 2014, which has just completed the first leg of a tour of Scotland. The original idea came from the German novelist Gunter Grass who, depressed by the lack of imagination shown during the 1964 West German election campaign, organised a busload of artists and independent thinkers to tour the country and invite people to engage in conversation about the future. Before the 1997 Scottish Parliament referendum the novelist William McIlvanney did likewise, and in May this year the Scottish Listening Bus reprised that journey with the start of its 2014 tour.
In libraries, schools, village halls and community centres, the travelling cast of writers and musicians sets the scene each time with songs, poems or readings and then invites the audience to answer the simple question: What kind of Scotland do you want? Because the events are billed as being non-partisan and the discussions are skilfully and sensitively moderated, people are able to speak freely about their hopes and fears and be heard respectfully.
It works because these are conversations between people whose only label, for the duration of the event at any rate, is their humanity, with all its attendant hopes and fears; and the hope is that the conversations will continue well beyond September, whatever the result. It also works because it’s entertaining. Watch this short clip of novelist James Robertson reading his brilliantly funny 365-word poem: The News Where You Are.
One of the reasons folk are so keen to label others is that each label is attached to a stereotype. People like stereotypes, unless of course they are being stereotyped, as they potentially make the world more predictable.
When we choose labels for ourselves, it is generally because we wish to be associated with the positive attributes we believe are attached of the stereotype. However, none of the labels truly define us, but merely reflect one facet of how we would like to be seen.
I’m not sure that the number of labels we wear, if self-chosen, need hinder our listening to others. It is the use of labels to negatively categorise or actively denigrate others that prevents us from hearing what anyone with a different label might be saying.