“While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”
Jo Cox MP
Just before Christmas, with little fanfare, the Committee for Standards in Public Life (CfSiPL) published its report on ‘intimidation in public life’. The report was produced at the invitation of the Prime Minister, in response to widespread claims of violent threats directed at candidates during the last General Election campaign.
Do take a look, but don’t expect a cheery read.
CfSiPL is small independent public body, it employs just four people, but the issue it was asked to examine is on a steep, troubling trajectory. The report catalogues with grim detail the prevalence of threats and abuse suffered by prospective Parliamentary candidates last spring.
The opening paragraph says it all:
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
“Intimidation in public life presents a threat to the very nature of representative democracy in the UK. Addressing this intimidatory, bullying and abusive culture matters. It matters for the diversity of our public life, it matters for the way in which the public can engage with representative democracy, and it matters for the freedom to discuss and debate issues and interests.”
The Committee’s report recommendations predictably focused on the social media companies who remain the conduit for vituperative commenting, the political parties who are called out for not confronting the issue, and police who have a history of responding capriciously to reports of violent abuse.
Women and ethnic minority candidates unsurprisingly emerge as those most exposed to virulent attacks, but no party’s candidates were exempt from intimidation – and nearly every party had supporters who considered that their partisan interests were best served by threatening to murder, maim or rape the candidates of other parties. Thousands of such threats occurred during the seven week campaign.
The rise of hyper-polarisation that underpins this has, to date, been studied much more extensively in the US than the UK. But in the aftermath of two hugely divisive referendums and with the emergence of Momentum, all the angry hallmarks of American expressive partisanship are now commonplace in the UK.
As CfSiPL reports, the most significant effect of this new environment is an emerging trend of people opting out of choosing politics as a career. But there are other, more minor, unsettling attendant consequences – such as MPs declaring that they cannot be friends with members of other political parties.
Perhaps the person who has done most to highlight these developments is Professor Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, who specialises in morality and the moral emotions.
In a Manhattan Institute lecture late last year, Haidt described how negative partisanship manifests itself among many student communities in the US.
“A funny thing happens when you take young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions. You tell them that one side in each binary is good and the other is bad. You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle. Many students find it thrilling; it floods them with a sense of meaning and purpose.”
So how to respond?
It seems that the tech companies, political parties and the police and Crown Prosecution Service alike have little choice but to act on the recommendations of CfSiPL.
But will that suffice? I think that is extremely unlikely.
Back in 2005, in a typically rhapsodic essay for the 10th anniversary edition of Wired magazine, the writer and tech oracle Kevin Kelley eulogised about voluntary participation on the web.
“The electricity of participation nudges ordinary folks to invest huge hunks of energy and time into making free encyclopedias, creating public tutorials for changing a flat tire, or cataloguing the votes in the Senate. More and more of the Web runs in this mode. One study found that only 40 percent of the Web is commercial. The rest runs on duty or passion.”
Can we harness these virtues of duty and passion to tackle online threats and defend democratic norms?
In a recent thought piece in Demos Quarterly, the author and researcher Jamie Bartlett wisely challenges the perception that this is a technological, not a human problem, and equates online hate with offline crime.
“perhaps the root causes are similar too: decades of research has found that anti-social behaviour offline is driven by complicated and overlapping causes, including poor parental supervision, low school achievement, anti-social parents, low family income, antisocial peers. In other words, deep rooted social problems. The only answer is a long-term, hard slog: the task of teaching society to be decent”.
It is an interesting analogy, but I am far from convinced that the often fixated individuals responsible for abuse either fit the profile or have been denied the life chances that characterise many perpetrators of offline violent crime.
What does resonate for me, as a football fan who has been attending games for over thirty years, is the experience of tackling racism in the game. The Kick It Out movement was launched 25 years ago by the Professional Footballers Association and the Commission for Racial Equality. Rather than solely focusing on the sanctioning of football clubs or the Premier League, the campaign success was rooted in changing social norms and fostering a culture of intolerance towards racist abuse among fans themselves with the support of clubs. No can claim that it has completely eradicated the scourge of racism, but there can be no denying that it has had a seismic impact, which, incidentally, has been echoed in Northern Ireland regarding sectarian abuse in local leagues.
If, as Kevin Kelley has it, ‘we are the web’ then surely then it is the vast majority of us who engage online with good tempered passion who should be calling out those who abuse, intimidate and threaten public figures.
Perhaps it is even our duty to do so.
We are now at the stage when we need the equivalent of online “Queensbury Rules” to aid robust political debate, but curb those who consider people they disagree with ‘scum of the earth’. I honestly don’t think that any of this can be entrusted to the police, social media companies or political parties. Would any such ‘code of conduct’ that emerges from this triumvirate pass muster?
As Brendan Cox set out in giving evidence to the Committee:
“these people feel they have a licence to articulate and follow through what they were thinking previously. It’s not about people being converted to fascism or whatever, but they sense they have social licence to follow through and that is the thing that language does.”
Surely we are the best stewards of the rules of civility in our own social space – and surely only we can change it.