Why has political debate become so nasty and personal? If you look at the internal debates in the Labour party around the anti-semitism issue, or discussions around Brexit, among Tories, the tone of the debates and personal vitriol meted out on both sides is extraordinary and almost unprecedented. Twitter users find that if they put their head above the parapet and give a political opinion on anything, they become the target, more often than not ,of personal attack, and sometimes direct threats . The person rather than the argument is attacked. Was it the Scottish referendum in 2014 that was the Ground Zero in nasty politics ? Or was it the EU referendum? Both binary issues, they seemed to encourage a black and white, simplistic , Manichean view of the world in which tribalism and group identity came to the fore. Nicola Sturgeon preached inclusive nationalism, while an army of “cybernats” targeted unionist commentators online. They were “collaborators” with a quasi-colonialist power or simply ‘traitors’. JK Rowling was just one of many high profile targets for vicious attack. Her crime? A commitment to supporting the Union. This was a space in which no quarter was given. Tribal and group identities were quickly formed and constantly reinforced . Even BBC reporters were targeted . The most passionate turned to threats and name calling. The better educated, predisposed to analysing issues and their innate complexity, were more doubtful ,less certain, less aggressive and less heard . So why has it come to this?
Politicians may be partly to blame. Promises were made , warnings were given, and dodgy statistics brazenly used in campaigns, that subsequently turned out to be bogus. Who, then, can the People trust? They look elsewhere, in search of fellow travellers, and find them on the internet .
This is an era in which personal feelings trump reason, encouraging emotional rather than intellectual responses to often complex issues . Arguably the internet itself is poisoning the political well, conversation and discussion . Civility has departed. The researchers Yphtach Lelkes, Gaurav Sood and Shanto Iyengar have linked polarisation firmly to internet usage. For instance, because broadband coverage spread unevenly across the US, they were able to track its arrival compared with residents’ political views. “Access to broadband internet increases partisan hostility,” they concluded in 2015 .“Access to broadband internet boosts partisans’ consumption of partisan media, a likely cause of increased polarisation.”
And maybe the structure of the internet itself makes productive disagreement harder. As well as its polarising effects, Facebook makes it hard to distinguish high- and low-quality information sources. It encourages users to stay inside its walled garden, and sit in an echo chamber hearing views that bounce back and reinforce their own, not bothering to get out and test their views , against others through rational debate. Virtual discussions and debate, in which you are not physically close to those you are arguing against ,therefore unable to read their eyes, and gauge their body language, may also encourage more hostility and a lack of empathy. So, how do we make our political conversation less toxic?
Part of the answer must lie in encouraging responsible, respectful debate, as early as possible within education systems . Teaching students to listen to, and to hear others , showing them how to construct a reasoned evidence informed argument, and to engage others with civility and respect. All this is infinitely possible. Look at the ideas of Martin Robinson, in his book the Trivium, influenced by the Greeks conception of education, updated for modern times- in which students are taught grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
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. Maybe they are slowly beginning to do so: Twitter introduced a “mute” function in 2014, and now allows users to screen out unwanted replies.
The rise of ad-blocking software, and Facebook’s algorithm changes, are both making life chillier for viral news sites. Facebook itself, under pressure from politicians, is working on ways to identify scammers and grifters and to combat group polarisation. State-sponsored trolls and bots the purveyors of disinformation, are still out there, but at least the scale of the disinformation crisis is beginning to emerge and some action is now being taken to shut down sites . Some Universities are even now teaching their students how to identify reliable sources on the internet. .
I think that political leaders politicians and journalists all have a role in standing back and acknowledging that the rules of engagement have been changed ,but not in a good way. Our political culture has changed for the worst. So it requires, firstly,an acknowledgement that we have a problem, then a conscious deliberate effort to change this and call out the worst offenders. More regulation of the internet may be required as the largest platforms have been signally lax at self-regulation. Educators can do their bit in ensuring that students understand from an early age the first principles that underpin civilised discourse and rational argument and then test these first principles in practice.
There are certain universal liberal values that western democracies have always stood for- including freedom of speech, and expression and, importantly, tolerance and respect for others views, cultures and religions. You dont have to agree with others , and should robustly argue your case, but always, at the very least , show tolerance respect and civility. Dont let the sociopaths prevail. The pursuit of truth is vital but should be fun, not a war of attrition.