Having been raised in a politically active household where political discussion was always welcome at the proverbial dinner table, I listened, watched and observed my parents, aunties, uncles and adult family friends discuss pros and cons of political policies both in Australia and in the Philippines (the country of my birth, and where my parents hail from). I would listen as they mostly agreed, sometimes disagreed, shared opinions, and rationalised and justified their positions. Raised to view civilised political discussion and disagreement as a normal and healthy part of life, and encouraged by parents who believe political involvement is crucial to a thriving democracy (and protection of family and worker’s rights), I would later develop my own keen interests in local and global politics.
But over the last decade, I have watched political discourse deteriorate to the point of incivility, both in the public arena by our elected officials, and in the social arena by citizen politicos possessing social media accounts. Politics, like Twitter, has become a toxic environment, with nastiness, name-calling and meanspiritedness all too common.
It’s odd when people use personal attacks and abusive language to try to ‘win’ others over to their way of political thinking. This behaviour never works, serving only to deepen the divide. In a New York Times opinion piece, Arthur C. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute validates this point:
“The point of politics is persuasion. A campaign is supposed to bring people into the fold. Candidates always have to reassure the true believers, yes. But more than that, they must persuade people on the fence and maybe even soften up those who are hostile. No one in history has ever insulted another person into persuasion. That’s axiomatic. You can insult someone into a fight, or into a lawsuit, or into a divorce. But not into agreement.”
So how did uncivilised political discourse become the norm? Let’s take a look at what’s contributing to this toxic political culture…
Not all politicians conduct themselves abhorrently, but some do. American President Donald Trump’s aggressive style comes to mind, his disparaging of a journalist with a disability and his personal tweets littered with words like “Crooked Hillary“, “Cheatin’ Obama“, “loser”, “stupid“, “idiot”, “dummy” and “moron”.
Obama is, without question, the WORST EVER president. I predict he will now do something really bad and totally stupid to show manhood!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2014
Then there’s Australia’s ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott who was thrown out of Parliament for heckling the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, when he was overheard calling her a liar (note: her frustration with his antics led to her famous misogyny speech).
Now some will argue that politics is fair game, but why should it be? Why should the political environment be treated differently to any other work environment? Shouldn’t the standards we expect of our public officials be the same or even higher given their roles in governing our country? If politics were any other workplace, politicians would be held to account, their behaviour deemed workplace bullying and they would suffer consequences and be ‘performance managed’. Why should politicians be “above the law” so to speak, and be permitted to behave disrespectfully?
Recently, Melania Trump spoke out, calling for an end to cyberbullying: “It is our responsibility to take the lead in teaching children the values of empathy and communication that are at the core of kindness, mindfulness, integrity, and leadership.” The Twitterverse exploded, furious tweets sent to the first lady accusing her of hypocrisy given that her husband is described as “America’s Biggest Bully”. Whatever you might think of her husband’s behaviour, Melania Trump’s anti-cyberbullying campaign is still very much needed. A 2016 survey from leading youth bullying prevention organisation STOMP Out Bullying, found that 88 percent of teens believe the U.S. is lacking in kindness right now.
Surely it’s not too much to ask that our politicians communicate civilly and lead by example?
.@GovernorPerry failed on the border. He should be forced to take an IQ test before being allowed to enter the GOP debate.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2015
The media too has played a key role in creating a highly divisive political climate. Humans love a good drama, and the national media are more than happy to serve it up daily. The media uses fear to their advantage, creating hysteria and ever loyal readers, viewers and listeners who check in to read, watch and listen to the latest news developments. Drama helps to sell newspapers, encourages clicks, gets more eyeballs, fuels debate. Oftentimes, the articles don’t even centre on facts, figures and policy details but rather, on the ‘juicy’ personal details of the public officials involved. The more sensational the tweet, the outburst, the behaviour, the better for their business.
In an article for Harvard Business Review entitled “Why the News Is Not the Truth“, Peter Vanderwicken explains why this is the case:
“The media’s practice of focusing on the manipulators and their machinations rather than on substantive issues is perhaps unavoidable because it reflects several aspects of American culture. Personalities are more compelling than institutions, facts are often uncertain, attention spans (and television sound bites) are brief, and simplification—often oversimplification—is the norm.”
In 2010, Allegheny College surveyed 1,000 randomly selected Americans nationwide to gauge attitudes on and perceptions of civility in politics and found that 60 percent of respondents felt that television news programs and radio talk shows contributed to the problem.
Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that liberals and conservatives tend to migrate to different media outlets, those that pander to their existing beliefs and biases. So liberals and leftists consume more news from media outlets such as Politico, The New York Times and MSNBC, while conservatives and right-leaning individuals tend to consume media from Fox News and radio talk programs hosted by personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Ben Shapiro and Mark Levin.
That media bias exists is troubling. Patent attorney Vanessa Otero, the creator of a viral media bias chart, explains why so:
“I think the extremes are very toxic and damaging to the country. These extreme sources play on people’s worst instincts, like fear and tribalism, and take advantage of people’s confirmation biases.”
It’s clear that the media discourages civility when it caters to identity-based groups, promotes identity politics, focusses on differences and encourages an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. A good way to reduce the media’s effect is to read widely and watch and listen to news from different sources to improve critical thinking and get you out of your political comfort zone.
Social media does not escape blame for fuelling a toxic political culture either. Social platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter offer ways for people to connect and share. Since our “vibe attracts our tribe” we tend to surround ourselves with people who share similar political ideologies and hold similar beliefs. Digital algorithms further perpetuate this confirmation bias by presenting posts that are more likely to appeal to us given our past online behaviour. The technology further pushes us into our echo chambers, limiting our exposure to people holding different political viewpoints.
In addition, just as bullying and fighting between individuals happen in the physical world, so too does it happen in the internet world. Follow a political discussion on social media long enough and you will eventually find that it has devolved to a cesspool of profanity, threats of violence (rape, death), personal attacks, rudeness, and other slurs based on race, gender, appearance. It’s disgusting. Of all the platforms, Twitter, has become especially toxic offering voters on both sides of politics an easy, repurcussion-free platform in which to sling insults and hurl abuse.
Advocating for a safe digital environment free from abuse and threats should not be taken to mean an attack on freedom of speech. Most communities have guidelines that must be followed, online and offline. All social media platforms have community policies that govern interactions to ensure the protection of its members. It’s also important that these platforms enforce their own policies when instances of abuse, personal attacks and verbal intimidation are reported.
In so doing, platforms make it clear what is acceptable and unacceptable community behaviour, and this serves to remind people that civility is always expected. If however, the platforms aren’t responding to abuse reports, and the attacks are relentless and causing you stress and anxiety, by all means, edit your privacy settings, block the offending account, or just opt out.
Can individuals be active, passionate, partisan without being hateful and abusive? Of course. Most people are. It’s just the vocal abusive minority who ruin the platform for everyone else.
How people conduct themselves is always 100 percent their choice and these choices either contribute to the toxic culture or contributes to greater policy understanding.
In matters of politics, how do you choose to conduct yourself?
Keen to change the toxic political culture? Want to make 2018 the year of empathy? You’ll love this post.