The age of incivility: how social media amplifies our differences

9 June 2018

9:00 AM

9 June 2018

9:00 AM

How long ago it now seems that the big political worry was apathy. Today, wherever you look — Brexit negotiations, US politics, the latest news from Europe — the talk is only of polarisation, division and a coarsening of political behaviour and language. According to a Ipsos MORI survey, most Europeans believe their countries are more polarised than ten years ago.

But are we really as divided as the new consensus presumes? What if recent political trends represent instead a long overdue rebalancing of interests after nearly 30 years of liberal domination — both economic and social — favouring the affluent and educated, and so a case of democracy not failing but working (albeit not to the taste of most of the political class)?

Despite the success of populist parties across Europe, many of them participating in governments — in Rome, Vienna and elsewhere — there has been no obvious threat to democracy, minority rights or the rule of law (with the arguable exception of a divided Poland and a majoritarian Hungary).

And are we not guilty of ‘presentism’, of too readily assuming the situation today is without parallel? But, in Britain, what about the polarising figure of Margaret Thatcher or the physical violence of the mid-1980s miners’ strike and the later poll tax riots? Describing Tories as ‘lower than vermin’ was not an over-enthusiastic young Momentum activist but Aneurin Bevan in 1948.

Moreover, there is actually quite a broad consensus on many of the most fundamental questions of British public life: in economics there is wide support for a regulated market economy flanked by a big state (with relatively minor disagreement between left and right about how big the state should be). In politics there is similarly wide support for representative democracy and governments that place a high value on fairness and diversity. These basics comfortably command a super-majority.

It is true that weak salary growth over the past decade has cast a zero-sum pall over politics and there is evidence of austerity fatigue, benefiting Labour at the last election. But class feeling is weaker than it was in the recent past, with more than half the population opting for no class at all, when unprompted, according to the British Social Attitudes survey.

Even on sociocultural issues the divergence is less than it sometimes appears because the great liberalisation of recent decades on race, gender and sexuality has been so triumphant. Many liberals seem reluctant to acknowledge this — suffering from what the Harvard academic Steven Pinker has called ‘progressophobia’ — and are nostalgic for the time in the 1960s when Roy Jenkins and others provided moral leadership against majority opinion on issues such as capital punishment and race equality legislation.

And yet the polarisation thesis clearly captures something real. Looming over our politics is the world-view divide I described in my book The Road to Somewhere, between the people who see the world from Anywhere (about one quarter of the population) and the people who see the world from Somewhere (about half the population). The first are the educated and mobile, who favour openness and autonomy and are broadly comfortable with social change, the second are the settled and less qualified, favouring familiarity and small-c conservatism and tend to see change as loss.

Both of those world views are perfectly decent and legitimate but for various reasons, partly to do with the expansion of higher education, economic change and the disproportionate weight of London, the divide between them has become sharper in recent years. It has created a new values version of the 1970s economic stalemate between the broad middle class and organised labour. This new stalemate could hardly be better illustrated than by the present quagmire of the Brexit negotiations — a Somewhere policy being delivered by reluctant Anywheres.

The great prize of British politics will go to whoever can forge a new consensus between the two broad value groups. In the meantime, we are living in a transitional period in which differences are exacerbated by social media and now polarised political groups.

The upshot has, indeed, been a coarsening of our public discourse in which, as the Prime Minister put it, it is ‘becoming harder to disagree without also demeaning opposing viewpoints in the process’.

It is now a commonplace that a smaller number of people with extreme views have a disproportionate voice, thanks to the social media megaphone. Social media has encouraged the purveyors of abuse. Where once it required a certain level of motivation and temerity to publicly heckle someone or even write a poison-pen letter, buy a stamp and put it in the post, today the ‘barriers to entry’ are close to zero. And anonymity is also guaranteed.

In the US the new political style preceded the arrival of social media. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die tracked the erosion there over the past two decades of the unwritten democratic norms of mutual toleration and forbearance and the growing conviction that political opponents are not rivals, but enemies to be destroyed.

This was pioneered by the right in the US but has been echoed in the moralistic intransigence of the modern left. It is no longer enough to disagree with one’s political opponents, it has become necessary to impute morally repugnant motives, especially to those on the right. This politics of rage was evident in the wake of the Grenfell disaster — described by John McDonnell as ‘social murder’ — and again after the recent Windrush scandal, painted by David Lammy as a deliberate act of racial exclusion.

But this is part of a wider shift. Race, gender and sexuality have partly eclipsed older socioeconomic divides. At its worst, this produces a rights- and resentment-based politics in which only women can speak for women, minorities for their particular group, and any discrepancy in minority representation is seen as proof of discrimination. In this way, noble liberal ideas curdle into something sour and sectarian.

Yet we should not panic for the political future, because in many ways we have got what we wished for. This is how a liberal society with divergent values and low moral consensus functions, whether in the politics of minority resentment, Corbynite leftism or in the Brexit push-back against economic and social openness.

Moreover, the common ground of politics is not as shaky as it sometimes seems. Most people in politics remain open to cooperation, with the exception of some of those Corbynite outriders. Even most of the Somewheres who voted for Brexit are ‘decent populists’ who accept gay marriage and race equality. A successful political settlement will need to find ways of marrying modern liberalism with their small-c conservatism.

Something has, however, gone wrong with the style and tone of our politics — perhaps best summed up as cultural intransigence exacerbated by social media — and we can begin to fix that with more active stigmatisation of extreme language and sentiments. That means all of us doing our bit to stand up for civility.

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