By Blog Writer Glenn Armstrong
The current political climate is dominated by arguments and disagreements that quickly become hostile, toxic and hateful. With serious issues facing humanity, from climate change to wealth distribution, it is no wonder passions run high when solutions to these problems are debated. But this becomes dangerous when freedom of speech comes into question. When people believe limiting airtime for those with radical and controversial views is the best option. When people would sooner silence those they disagree with than dedicate time to considering the issue.
Helen Lewis’ ‘Boiling Point’ piece in the New Statesman (31st of August- 6th of September) is remarkably thorough and a wonderful summary of how, and possibly why, the political discourse became so ‘toxic’. In an article revolving around media bias, Lewis does a brilliant job of maintaining a relatively neutral position on most issues, raising the issue of political discussion and its gradual decline into name calling and abuse.
A particularly powerful point made is the comparison of Corbyn’s treatment of the media and Trump’s. Many Corbyn supporters are outraged at this comparison as they believe the two politicians to be polar opposites. In terms of policy this is true, yet when it comes to media relations there are moments when parallels become starkly obvious. In a speech concerning the media in January 2017, the leader of the opposition claimed that the people that run Britain, ‘have stitched up our political system to protect the rich and powerful’. As pointed out by Andrew Marr when Jeremy Corbyn appeared on his programme a day later, this has, ‘just a whiff of Donald Trump’ in its sentiment and style. Corbyn is stuck in a very difficult position though as his left-wing ideology immediately puts him at loggerheads with many media outlets and the status quo in the UK that hasn’t seen a powerful left-wing presence since Tony Benn in the 1980s. This, Corbyn claims, prevents neutral scrutiny of his and his contemporaries’ policies and actions. However, it is clear he is unwavering in his beliefs, so it seems his last resort is to lash out towards the media.
When a party leader expresses contempt for the MSM, then people follow suit. Abuse of journalists on social media and increasingly rude and hateful language is beginning to be used when peoples’ views don’t perfectly align. This sets a dangerous precedent and only serves to enlarge the spectre of discontent hanging over political discussion.
A point alluded to throughout the article was the impossible position that liberal democracies find themselves in. Extreme views have always existed, but new social media outlets give them a larger platform to gain support. This leads many to want people holding these beliefs to have less airtime, immediately bringing freedom of speech into question. It is frankly impossible to silence these views without a huge backlash due to concerns around civil freedoms.
Education now becomes a key tool in maintaining the liberty of each individual to express their views but also in helping the public to form their own opinion based on a range of information. Hegel’s idea of true intelligence stemmed from the ability to listen, consider and evaluate others’ ideas. This concept allows one to build a rounded picture and become widely informed even from people who don’t necessarily share your view. All views and ideas have something we can use ourselves to either confirm our own thoughts or to raise new ones in our minds.
This concept in the modern political landscape could allow people to reasonably debate and discuss ideas. It could prevent conversations about politics derailing before the train of thought even left the station. Education could act as a cure to the toxicity rampant in current discourse.
To bring this point into actual policy any responsible government should consider mandatory political education in schools. For many 18-year olds, when they leave school they have had very little exposure to the processes of government or the fundamental political ideologies. Yet they are expected to vote with an informed opinion.
Why do we expect this when we don’t give them the foundational knowledge? Why do we resent young people for not voting when they have never been inspired to?
A generation who understands that politics can be a meaningful device for change and that they can personally affect that change, could be a revolutionary force. An informed populous can debate hateful and bigoted views and prove them to have no place in society. With the immense power that comes with education, we can have a society with freedom of speech that is capable of reasonable discussion on controversial issues.
In my mind, the answer must be education. This will enable people to critically evaluate others’ views against their own beliefs, without immediately dismissing them or being blindly swayed.
The problem of a participation crisis among the youth in Britain is real. We can’t just watch and hope that suddenly by some miracle things will change. We must be proactive in helping this generation to see politics for what it can be, not for the ‘toxic’ mess it has become.