The Toxicity of Public Debate

The latest issue of Affinity's Social Issues Bulletin is out now. It is free to download, as are all previous editions. One of the articles, by James Mildred, looks at the way in which animosity and division in communication and debate now characterises so much of life in the UK today:

Introduction

On Thursday 16 June 2016, Britain was shocked by the murder of Jo Cox MP. She was stabbed numerous times and shot by a man who allegedly shouted “Britain first” as he murdered her in broad daylight, outside a library in Birstall. Campaigning for the EU referendum was immediately suspended, and MPs and Peers went back to Westminster to pay tribute and debate the awfulness of the incident. One of the themes noticeable as people reflected on the loss of Ms Cox was a lament for the state of public debate.

Since her death, public debate has become ever more toxic. The EU referendum result which came just weeks after the MP’s death, led to three years of constant political tension and turmoil. The level of debate inside the Westminster Parliament plumbed new depths, with MPs entrenched on either side of the Leave/Remain divide. Every key Brexit debate seemed to only make the situation worse.

Working for CARE means a lot of my time is spent observing Parliament and the debates that take place. This puts me in a good position to offer some reflections on the state of public debate and how Christians might respond.

Any discussion of toxicity in public debate needs to also consider the obnoxious rise of an insecure liberalism that accepts no creed other than its own. Recent years have also seen concepts such as “non-crime hate incidents” and “non-violent extremism” where the definitions are incredibly subjective and can cause real havoc for free speech.

The recent suicide of Caroline Flack, a TV presenter and actor led to an outpouring of both grief and anger, especially with the media for feeding and generating stories that provoked strong responses online. There is no doubt that platforms like Twitter have contributed to a decline in standards of public debate. So, we will briefly consider the role social media has played in the decline.

Finally, it is important that as Christians we think about how we should respond. God’s Word to us is an invaluable guide and will help shape our thinking. God calls us to be salt and light in the world and to make a difference in every area of public life, including public debate. We must exemplify a better approach, one modelled on the Saviour himself.

Intimidation of MPs

It is helpful if we ground our examination of toxicity of public debate in clear examples. Let’s start with what has gone on in Parliament. On the 9 May 2019 Peers gathered in the House of Lords to debate a motion put down by Lord Harris of Haringey. The motion read as follows: “That this House regrets the conduct, and toxicity, of debate in public life; of the divisions in society which result from that; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to take steps to address such divisions.”

During the debate, the following was highlighted: in 2017, the number of offences recorded against MPs by the Metropolitan Police was 151. This doubled to 342 in 2018 and by May 2019, 600 incidents had already been recorded. Some MPs have been advised by the police not to use any form of public transport. Tory MP Simon Hart said during a Westminster Hall debate that the Whips’ Office received “at least three credible threats to colleagues every week”. Labour MP Diana Abbot said when she became an MP in 1997, it was common to receive one racist letter a week. Now, on some days hundreds of items of abuse are received. SNP MP Dr Lisa Cameron said she had put in place extra security in her garden so her children can play safely. Research suggests intimidation of MPs spikes following key events. For example, significant moments in the Brexit negotiations brought a rise in cases of MPs being abused.

What are we to make of this? There are of course inherent risks in the work and job of an MP. Public exposure means people can scrutinise and pass judgment on them more easily. Inevitably, they need a thick skin to survive. It has always been this way. But what has changed is the ease with which people now feel they can torment, criticise and bully MPs and other elected officials. I think some of this can be traced back to the MPs expenses scandal of 2009. The lifting of that lid generated a huge public backlash – understandably – and helps explain the public’s general attitude towards those elected to represent us.

Language used in Parliament

But not only has there been a rise in intimidation of MPs and officials, there has also been a marked decline in the standard of language used in the Westminster Parliament. It seems as if we have forgotten the power of language and the way words can be like daggers and swords. This is captured by the increased use of the word “traitor”. Both sides of the Brexit debate have used this term to attack others. A recent surge of toxic tweets was reported after the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, used “inflammatory language” following the Supreme Court’s ruling that his attempted prorogation of parliament was illegal.

I think the cause of this sort of language being employed is largely the consequence of holding a binary vote like the EU referendum. It was always going to create a fault line with people lining up on one of two sides. While there is lots of nuance in the views people hold, this is largely lost in Parliamentary debate because the media and social media are really only interested in the entrenched and extreme views on both sides of the argument.

Actually, I think the increased use of inflammatory languages goes back to the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014, where the public debate was incredibly acrimonious. As a nation, we are unused to binary referendums. But in the last six years we have had two and the most recent one – on membership of the EU – was deciding something so core to the future of the nation. Such votes force people into two opposite camps which can enflame tensions.  

Attacks on journalists

Another way the toxicity of public debate can be observed is the way journalists are treated. There is much more to say on this than there is space, but a few examples will suffice. In 2014, the former Scotland First Minister Alex Salmond singled out Nick Robinson for criticism, leading to a torrent of online abuse. Thousands of independence supporters called for his resignation and protested outside BBC offices. In 2017, Laura Kuenssberg had a bodyguard when she went to the Labour Party conference. In February 2020, BBC South East’s Political Editor, Lauren Moss said she had screamed abuse and a cup of hot chocolate thrown at her by a random passer-by because of how much he hated the BBC. Journalists have their faults, but as contributors to public debate they are often on the receiving end of vile abuse.

The media are part of the problem

At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that the media is part of the problem. The way digital media platforms churn out an absurdly high number of stories definitely contributes to the degrading of journalism. It aids sensationalistic headlines which in turn, prompts strong reactions from the public.

Social media

So far, we have observed that attacks on MPs and threats to their lives have increased and the public’s relationship with elected representatives has grown more tense. In parallel, journalists have also been on the receiving end of increased hostility. We grounded this in the EU referendum, the Scottish referendum and the MPs expenses scandal.

Now we return to the question of why and how this happens. To answer, we need to look at social media. Somewhere in recent years social media lost its way. It has become a space where toxicity is fuelled by anonymous key board warriors who use platforms like Twitter and Instagram to insult and criticise others. But what is it about social media that makes it such a devastating carrier of harm?

Of course, there is a deadly irony here. Social media was supposed to bring us all together, not tear us apart. Some persuasive analysis suggests that what social media does is group users with other likeminded people. This means they live in a sort of digital echo chamber and over time, it erodes their ability to listen to and accept that other people have different views. But there are a few other factors at play as well.

Firstly, there is the speed of social media. The fact that tweets can be a maximum of 280 characters encourages quick, ill-thought-through replies. Even using a thread of tweets to develop a point, the whole platform and the speed with which people reply means the emphasise is not on reasoned debate. Twitter is not designed for considered, nuanced contributions to public discourse.

Secondly, there is the anonymity Twitter provides. To my mind, this is the single biggest reason Twitter especially, and social media in general, has facilitated the decline in public conversation. People can call other people all manner of terrible things from the comfort and security of their own homes without having to worry about any of the consequences.

Thirdly, there is the simple fact is that social media does not require users to be polite and kind. It is easier to assassinate someone’s character from the security of an iPad or iPhone than to do so in person. When responding to someone on social media, the effect words have goes unseen, whereas in person it is possible to read body language or other responses and adjust tone and temper accordingly. Social media rewards cowardice and provides ways to engage and connect with people to whom we would never otherwise speak.

Social media has helped the spread of ideas enormously. But its original purpose to connect friends and family has been corrupted. There is a heightened sense of the damage over-exposure on social media can do to an individual. Strikingly, the British actress Julie Walters said recently that her advice to any new actors starting out would be to stay off social media. Studies indicate that too much time on social media is bad for mental health.

The right to speak

Running in parallel with the examples of abuse towards MPs and journalists, another manifestation of toxicity in public life is the suppression and silencing of views considered unfashionable.

Here we come to the real tension that is at play. For all the evidence of a coarsening public debate, there will always be those who, quite understandably, are loathe to do anything about it because of “free speech”. It is a long-held tradition in this country that we are free to say what we think. Free speech means the freedom not only to express our views, but crucially the freedom to offend others. The rise of “no-platforming” is a ridiculous and horrible trend that will only be counterproductive. Those who seek to silence so-called radical views, simply turn themselves into a moral thought police, deciding what is right and what is not.

Most sinister of all is the emergence of what Lord Alton has called a “mutant liberalism”. Many who would proudly call themselves liberal are incredibly intolerant of those who take a different view. As an example, consider Tim Farron, the former leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, who was hounded by the media because of his orthodox, historical Christian views on sexuality. It distracted from the Lib Dem’s General Election campaign in 2017 and forced him to quit a week after the vote took place. Or in the December 2018 election, the Lib Dems expelled a candidate called Rob Flello because of tweets from years ago which evidenced his pro-life views. Mr Flello made the mistake of stepping out the bounds of liberal orthodoxy and suffered as a result.

It cannot be said often enough: for a society to be truly pluralist we need to be free to actually believe things or else we should give up the pretence. The recent furore over Franklin Graham (all public venues which had been booked for his UK meetings later this year have cancelled, citing his views on gay marriage) evidenced all too clearly that there is a powerful agenda to supress Christianity and keep it out of the public conversation. The anger and bitterness of those who oppose Christian doctrine on sexuality and marriage knows little or no bounds. Convinced with a fanatical, evangelical zeal, today’s “woke” progressives suffer no fools and allow no deviance from their agreed set of beliefs and values.

A Christian response

We have only been able to scratch the surface in this article on the whole question of toxicity in public debate. The unavoidable truth, biblically speaking, is that the main reason our public discourse is in its current state is due to sin and humanity’s inherent selfishness. In a therapeutic culture where our feelings are king, we are more liable to be offended, and quicker to blast those who take a different path to us. It is the gospel which sets us on a different path, freeing us from having to live dependent on the approval of others.

What shall we say in response to all this?

First, we need to repent. We need to turn from our own sin in this regard. How sad it would be if we held our heads up high and acted as if we in the church have never failed in this regard. As Christians, we are not immune to letting our Lord down. Social media is as big a danger for us as for anyone else. And sometimes, the way Christians argue over theological issues on social media is a scandal all by itself. I know myself I have got this badly wrong in the past and spoken in anger and haste when more thought was required. But not just on social media. How many grudges have I held? How many spoken conversations where my tone needed to be gentler and more respectful?

Secondly, we need to remember to be quick to listen and slow to speak. James 1:19 says: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…”. Proverbs 17:28 is even more blunt about the importance of listening: “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”

Listening suggests we accept that what other people have to say matters and that we are not in the position of talking for the sake of talking. Temperamentally, some are better listeners than others and some are more natural communicators than others. But the verse from James is speaking to all Christians, both the silent type and the chatterbox. It is a general rule and command that we should be slow to speak and slow to become angry. Maybe, just maybe, the two are connected! As we choose to listen first and listen more, we will find ourselves less angry and in turn, we will do less damage with our words.

Thirdly, we should consider the power of our words to build up and destroy others. James 3:1-12 is the section of the New Testament that deals with the importance of the tongue in the most extended way. Space and time mean I cannot go into fuller details. But let me finish with just a few observations.

First, the Lord’s half-brother draws attention to the challenge of taming the tongue. This is not a new problem. Yes, public debate has become more toxic, but whether you are a Christian or not, this is a peculiar challenge. As James says, we use our tongues to build up and to tear down. We are, as it were, all double-tongued. It is striking that James includes himself in the definition of those who need to learn to do this better.

Secondly, the tongue has a peculiar power to ruin: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness…”. Later he adds that the tongue “is a restless evil, full of deadly poison”. The evidence of this is demonstrated in replies to tweets, and the way the media often inflame and exacerbate different problems. In the quality of public debate in Parliament and other Assemblies, there is an additional challenge.

Thirdly, the tongue has a disproportionate ability to effect other people. James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship, drawing out the point that, though small in size in comparison to the whole ship, the rudder determines the direction. He also compares it to the bit in a horse’s mouth which, again, is small in comparison to the horse and yet controls the direction of the beast. So, too, the tongue is a tiny part of the human body, yet it effects its entire direction. With it we curse people, says James, who are made in God’s image.

Let that truth be the final reflection. The toxicity of public debate which has coarsened and got worse in recent years is linked to the declining view in society of who we are as humans. Strange notions about the origins of the world have convinced people that humans are little more than highly-evolved bags of chemicals. But the biblical vision is so much more. Whoever we speak to, let’s remember we are speaking to someone made in the image of God. This should motivate and shape the way in which we engage and interact with all people and inform how we engage with them.

As Christians, our response should be to look to the power of example. Jesus Christ is the perfect embodiment of measured, fair and gracious engagement in public debate. He always knew when to speak more strongly and when to speak gently; he listened and heard people; he debated and argued. He is our supreme example in all this. With the help of his Spirit, we must be salt and light in public debate as best we can and show people a better way.

 

James Mildred is Head of Communications for CARE.

(This article was originally published in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin for February 2020. The whole edition can be found at www.affinity.org.uk)


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