Anger, activism and anonymity
The arrival of Greenpeace in the islands last month saw an incredible upsurge in public debate and discussion, particularly on the pages of Shetlink.com. Usually I’d say this was a good thing, but in this case I’m not so sure.
There are a number of problems with Shetlink (though there are plenty of good things about it too, of course). One problem is that offering people a forum to share their opinions anonymously somehow seems to bring out the extremist in many contributors; another is that, like crowds, internet forums often seem to foment a mob mentality, which is never pretty; and a third is that the opinions expressed online are available for all to see, worldwide, and will be read by many as being representative of the wider Shetland public, whether this is true or not. The combination of these three factors can be somewhat troubling.
The local response to Greenpeace’s protest, which saw campaigners hanging from the anchor chain of the Stena Carron, just north of Bressay, was overwhelmingly negative. That is no surprise really. This is a seafaring community with strong links to the oil industry, so mucking around in boats and attacking the oil industry is not going to be universally popular. But the level of abuse aimed at the protestors by Shetlink contributors, and the speed at which these escalated, was still shocking and ultimately embarrassing.
In addition to the usual tedious jibes about “tree hugging”, “sandals”, “kaftans” and “rice cakes”, a stream of rather less predictable and considerably more unpleasant suggestions about what to do with the protestors quickly appeared online.
Probably the most popular proposal was that the crew of the Stena Carron should simply drop their anchor, thus drowning their unwanted guests and ending the protest. Others though felt that an even more direct approach was required: “If you can bomb the Taliban, you can bomb Greenpeace” wrote one contributor. “One is as bad as the other.” Someone else agreed, suggesting that Shetland should offer a “New Zealand welcome” to the protestors, referring to bombing of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in 1985. (That operation was organised by the French foreign intelligence service, and authorised by the president, François Mitterrand. It resulted in the death of a photographer, Fernando Pereira, as well as a large compensation payout and massive embarrassment for the French government.)
If these were jokes, they were noticeably lacking in humour.
One of the claims that was most often repeated during the online debate was that the Greenpeace are “terrorists”. It’s a charge that seems to be taken for granted by many, but in fact it makes no sense at all. Greenpeace abandoned their anchor chain protest when Chevron were granted an interdict against them. That doesn’t really sound like the actions of a terrorist group, does it? If Al Qaeda and the like would cease their activities because of the threat of legal action, the UK’s defence and security budgets could be very dramatically cut. But they don’t cease. Because they’re terrorists.
As an organisation, Greenpeace are disastrously bad at fostering grassroots or community support for their campaigns, as last month’s events demonstrated. This is a major failing on their part, because by antagonising people in places like Shetland, they risk turning the public not only against themselves, but against any argument that they ever wish to get across. And that’s not clever. But it’s not terrorism either.
Greenpeace do not aim to instil fear; they want to change people’s minds and change laws. It is fine to disagree with their methods – there is plenty to disagree with, and to feel irritated or patronised by. It’s also fine to disagree with their message, if you can actually be bothered to engage with what they’re saying, which many, clearly, cannot. But the kind of comments that appeared on the pages of Shetlink are not fine, they’re just nasty, and they make Shetland look like a community of violent, small-minded idiots, which it isn’t.
Personally, I am glad that there are still people who are willing to stand up and make their views known to the world rather than sitting behind a computer grumbling anonymously. And this remains true even when I do not agree with either the message or the method. Part of me wishes I had the courage and the unwavering conviction necessary for activism. But since I have neither, I suppose I must make do with writing.