The Loss of Civility: What Happened to Respectful Disagreement?

It seems that the ability to gracefully disagree with one another has become a distant memory. An increasing level of antagonism and vitriol has crept in to our debate over the last decade. Something about the way we engage with each other appears fundamentally to have altered. Social media has been cited as a cause or a symptom of this shift (or possibly both). Surely, however, it can’t be wholly responsible?

Perhaps the austerity imposed during the 2010s in the wake of the financial collapse induced a greater sense of desperation and anger towards the powers that be. Opposition towards something is easier to express than support for it. Austerity certainly provided ample reasons for opposition given that the axe was descending, as it so often does, very suddenly and on those least able to fend it off.

In more recent times, perhaps Brexit is also partly responsible. There is something very basic about the in/out option; although either point of view, of course, ultimately depends on a vast amount of detail and uncertain assumptions. In this globalised world, most important issues now are too complex to be fully appreciated or expressed by non-experts (and perhaps also by experts). Brexit, with its binary conclusion, could have been designed for social media.

A more general disenchantment with the current political and decision-making process may also be to blame. The turnout in the 2001 election was under 60% and, although it has been rising since, every 21st century election has so far had less than 70% of the electorate voting whereas every election from 1945 to 1997 has had more. There does seem to be a sense that the current system is missing quite a few tricks. It has been argued that an ever more despondent population, imbued with the power of social media whilst simultaneously becoming more socially atomised in any real sense, found ways to express its frustration through the growth of technology. The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising said on December 2019 that at least 31 campaigns from across the party spectrum have been indecent, dishonest or untruthful. Is it any wonder that we should distrust glib announcements from the the party machines and rely instead on a medium that we feel that we have more control over?

Social media activity is in many ways the new politics. Accounts with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the rest have become almost as common as connection to the national grid and a lot more common than membership of, or even support for, a political party. In 2008, there were about 150m people worldwide who used Facebook at least once a month. By 2013 this had risen to 1.23bn, and to twice that number in 2019. The consequences of this are constantly debated, as are the means by which Facebook has achieved this monopoly. What is certain is that the insidious algorithm tends to direct us towards things in which we have already expressed an interest or belief. Frantic in its insulation of us from conflicting opinions, every visit tempts us with yet another inflammatory commentator, each one perfectly in harmony with our own ever-hardening opinions.

Whatever the cause, letting rage overwhelm measured thought has now become that much easier and also far easier to express. An angry, and often anonymous, online reaction has all the satisfactions – and all the potential regrets – of any other immediate gratification. As we are prepared to say much more online than we would dare to to people’s faces, this also risks making such communication inoculated from real-world consequences.

Increasingly, this vitriol of polarised, online echo chambers has spilled over into physical reality. The line between online and physical spheres seems to have become blurred and the behaviours assigned to both both interchangeable. The behaviour in the House of Commons has always been highly adversarial (certainly during PMQs), but at time politicians seem to have abandoned parliamentary decorum and begun to employ a more snarling approach which seems to have been learned from Twitter. This is understandable: it is, after all, on this medium that many of their remarks find their way into the public domain. The average length of a tweet is, according to Techcrunch, 33 characters: this hardly allows enough space for any kind of considered statement.

Conversations with friends on divisive issues such as immigration, gender identity, welfare, taxation and the NHS have often been memorable not for their level of civility but for their unrestrained rage, an inability to regard nuance and – mainly because social media interaction tends to present us with posts with which we’re liikely to agree – an unreflective consolidation of our previous attitudes.

Attending the election hustings at St Bart’s recently, I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see a much more civil and measured conversation occur. Realisation this was not the gladiatorial ring of Twitter or Facebook was immediately adopted by the candidates and it was a pleasure to see civility again.

Perhaps we should all try to recognise the line between the online and physical spheres that much more clearly and consistently, whilst remembering unrestrained rage in any conversation rarely gets anyone anywhere. Social media has given us many good things: whether it’s connecting with long-lost or elusive friends or finding that one is not alone with a particular interest, problem or concern, a number of interactions have now become vastly easier than previously. In other ways, however, its very brevity and immediacy has allowed dialogue to become that much more gnarled and ugly.

It’s also true that the mores and manners of a past age often seem better and more attractive than do our own. The real difference now is that, in the past, a lot of what we thought stayed in our heads or was shared with a few friends. Now, every point of view, no matter how extreme or ill-considered, has an immediate outlet through social media and is normalised by the fact that so many others are doing the same thing. The excesses that result have spilled into other forms of debate about Brexit, austerity, the political establishment and so much else besides.

This article is not concerned with the political impact of the 2019 general election, nor with the reasons why it happened at all, but with its social consequences. Will we be able to conduct debates in a less adversarial and confrontational way in the future? Will we be able to recognise that no one has a monopoly of the truth and be able to react accordingly? Is it possible that we can re-assert the importance of geographical connections to our fellow humans, rather than one based only on our social-medial affiliations? Time will tell…

Bryn Dawson

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