Friday, August 31, 2018

Helen Lewis on why political debate has become so toxic

Helen Lewis has an interesting and well argued article in the New Statesman about why the political conversation has become so toxic in character both in the UK and elsewhere.

You can read the whole article here but a few extracts follow to give some of the flavour of the piece.

"Calculated offence (and the taking of it) has always been a part of politics. Seventy years ago this summer, Labour’s minister for health Aneurin Bevan stood up in Manchester to give a speech. In it, he described the poverty and hunger of his early life, adding: “That is why no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.”

Bevan’s remark surely stands out, and is remembered today, because of its relative rarity. Now, if you talk to any MP, peer or special adviser, they will mention the blizzard of abuse that accompanies political life. Journalists feel it too, with the occasional nasty letter now replaced by endless online vitriol. Activists complain that public meetings and closed Facebook groups are mired in sourness and bad-faith arguments. People in the BBC Question Time audience are red-faced with fury. Everywhere you look, politics feels toxic."

"When did the current era of toxicity begin? Robert Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester and the co-author of a book on Ukip, points to the Scottish and EU referendums as flashpoints. They offered binary choices that “massively over-simplified complex questions, and encouraged people to identify with one [side] or the other”.

Both brought discussions of identity – sovereignty, immigration and nationalism – to the surface, encouraging emotional rather than intellectual responses. “Does JK Rowling have the right to comment on Scottish politics?” or “Is the flag of St George a racist symbol?” are more incendiary questions than “What percentage of GDP should be spent on public services?” or “Has outsourcing failed?”

"The roots of the malaise are deeper, however, and some of the current toxicity must be attributed to a vicious cycle between the media and politicians. The 2009 expenses scandal encouraged a mood of “anti-politics”: the lazy but appealing idea that all politicians, not just a significant minority, were “on the take”, or “in it for themselves”. They weren’t public servants, but parasites. A friend who worked on Question Time told me that for years afterwards, the surest way to get applause on the show was to bang the table and say, 'Why. Won’t. The. Politicians. Listen. To. Us.'”

"The anti-politics mood encouraged politicians to fight fire with fire: who were the media to act as moral arbiters, anyway? On both left and right, a narrative has developed that the “MSM” – mainstream media – is out of touch with ordinary citizens’ concerns, in the pocket of billionaires, and is always wrong."

(She quotes some examples of the media getting something wrong and being pilloried for it.)

"There is a fundamentally correct point here, but it has been distorted into something cartoonish and unanswerable. Just as politicians as a class were condemned over expenses, so journalists as a class are attacked as ignorant and useless. Yet any analysis that brackets together a report from Mosul by the BBC’s Quentin Sommerville with Richard Littlejohn’s 9,567th column on “elf and safety” is obviously so broad as to be absurd. That doesn’t stop people trying, of course."

"Why is everyone always angry on the internet? Because it’s the simplest way to make a living. The perpetual outrage machine prints money.

Then comes anxiety. If economic growth is faltering, and social mobility is stalling, then politics feels more like a zero-sum game. It’s no longer about sharing out new goodies but grimly hanging on to whatever you already have." 

"As the amount of information instantly available at our fingertips has sky-rocketed, we have dealt with the overload by extending our tribalism from opinion to facts themselves. This is called “tribal epistemology” – where information is evaluated primarily by asking whether it supports your tribe’s values, and is being pushed by your tribe’s leaders, rather than by appealing to a sense of objective truth.

“There is no single, agreed set of facts on which the various sides hold different opinions,” wrote the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland in the wake of the row over Corbyn’s attendance at a wreath-laying ceremony in Tunis. “Instead, among those most heatedly involved, the facts or evidence people see and don’t see depend on their tribal or factional affiliation.”

"So how do we make our political conversation less toxic? How do we stop bad faith preventing us from discussing politics with people on the other side? How do we stop the current situation, where too many people don’t run for office, or even join the conversation, because they don’t want to step into a swamp? Sometimes, I long for the digital equivalent of Chernobyl’s concrete shell to be built over Twitter, as everyone leaves and we all agree never to mention what happened there ever again.

 The political speechwriter turned columnist Philip Collins thinks that those with a platform have a “responsibility to be civil, as courteous as we can be”, but also that the social networks need to take more responsibility for the phenomena they have encouraged. They are slowly beginning to do so: Twitter introduced a “mute” function in 2014, and now allows users to screen out unwanted replies."

It is a much longer article than the sections I have quoted but worth a read.


Anonymous said...

Chris Whiteside said...

If you are quoting that site as an illustration that a lot of people post pretty sick stuff on the internet you have made the point perfectly.