“I’m a human being”. This simple statement by Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, during her resignation announcement, is a declaration, a reminder, and a white flag increasingly raised in a vicious, overly-pressurised environment. Sturgeon is a fantastic communicator. During her press conference, she once again displayed her trademark honesty, openness, authenticity and empathy. She is a huge loss to British politics.
But her resignation also speaks to a broader worry. We should all be concerned about decent people departing electoral politics; departures spurred at least in part by the increasingly difficult, polarised and frankly abusive atmosphere’s they’re trying to operate within. I personally worry that the people we’ll be left with in politics the world over, will be those who have the financial resources to detach from the real world or those who are so corrupt and brazen that attempts to hold them to account are almost worthless, and those who are sociopathic to the point that valid criticism doesn’t connect. Caring in the face of callousness, costs.
Sturgeon was, as all female politicians must be, resilient. Yet the thinking we have around the concept of resilience is often wrong. It’s seen as a badge of personal honour, when in fact it speaks to a social flaw. In practical terms, the impact of abuse is accumulative. Abuse is not an event, and resilience isn’t necessarily ever-lasting. Just because you built it, doesn’t mean it can’t fall. We should talk less about resilience being a strength, and more about the need for it being a weakness in society.
Why should people be expected to build resilience in the face of abuse? And why is resilience demanded of certain people and groups in society – and politics – over others? Why are women, people of colour, and minorities compelled to build resilience? It’s not because they’re weaker, it’s because they’re targeted more.
We actually need more vulnerability, not more resilience.
Sturgeon sounded like she’d had enough. Who would blame her? Public service is a sacrifice, but there was obviously a point for her where she became sacrificial. You should make sacrifices, you shouldn’t actually be one. In Ireland, politicians are sounding alarms about the increase in abuse, trolling, stalking, harassment and potential for violence.
Aa lot of people find it hard to have sympathy for those whom them believe have a negative impact on people’s lives through their policies. Politicians themselves can only expect decency when they are decent. But if everyone is up for grabs, regardless of who “deserves” to be hounded or not, then who do people think will survive such onslaughts? It won’t be the kind, the vulnerable, the empathetic. It’ll be those who don’t have any of those qualities, but whose egos and lust for power will see them barrel on regardless.
There is a big difference between holding power to account, and attacking people simply because they hold power. We are losing perspective and context. Not everyone deserves to be attacked so relentlessly simply because they hold political office. Some people are more decent than others.
Many will say that the failure of politicians in many societies has led to increased scrutiny, demands for accountability and transparency. That’s true. You cannot blame people for being angry when those in charge of the systems they suffer under have made bad decisions and pursued damaging ideologies. But this blanket rage smothers many of those who are actually offering good ideas, hope, and decent policies as collateral damage.
Sturgeon spoke of toxic discourse: “If all parties were to take the opportunity to depolarise public debate just a bit, to focus more on issues that on personalities, and to reset the tone and the tenor of our discourse, then this decision, right for me, and I believe my party and the country, may also prove good for politics.” Her call for decency feels increasingly old-fashioned, which is depressing. It speaks volumes that two global leaders notable for how they led with empathy – Sturgeon and Jacinda Ardern – have stepped down in such quick succession.
Real leadership requires a capacity for vulnerability. But that’s hard to express in a state of constant attack. Real leadership means listening. But it’s hard to do when there is so much angry noise and so many people who themselves refuse to listen. Real leadership means uniting people. But that’s so difficult when divisiveness is the parameter of discourse. Real leadership means bringing people with you. But that’s almost impossible when people hold entrenched positions. Real leadership requires humanity. But how can that be maintained when it is breached so often in an era of discourse that is so dehumanising?