A Crisis of Incivility

Yesterday, while watching exchanges in the UK parliament between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the leader of the opposition Labour Party in the UK, Sir Keir Starmer, I was struck by the level of incivility of the leaders, and their benches as well as Ian Blackford MP, leader of the SNP in the Commons and his bench. Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the elected speaker of the House of Commons, had to continually intervene to allow individuals to speak above the roar of insults hurdled from all sides. This is not uncommon. One aspect of the problem is that incivility is becoming the norm.

Maybe I am naive and politics has always lacked a level of civil discourse. I recall Harry Truman’s point that if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. But I believe this worry was exacerbated in my view by a public opinion poll that pulled together a WordCloud of words used to convey responses of the UK public being interviewed to describe the PM.[1] The news media made a point of ‘liar’ being the most often mentioned. While open-ended questions on a survey have many non-responses and such a WordCloud is highly problematic, I could not but be struck mainly by the prominence of so many insulting slurs along with fewer positive terms, such as ‘likeable’.

I realize that there are many reasons why the public could be angry in the aftermath of the pandemic. UK and worldwide problems are huge, recovery from the pandemic, the Russo-Ukraine war and the helplessness felt by the public, the rising cost of living, the crises facing the NHS and healthcare, the prospect of stagflation, and we could go on. However, I wonder if the incivility of parliamentarians is spilling over to the public as they gain a stronger sense that it is not simply okay to be rude and insulting but that is how their leaders behave.

I’ve blogged before about claims that polarisation, exacerbated by social media, is undermining civility, arguing that polarisation is not the problem. As I argued then, the idea that people are becoming more extreme is not explained by them being trapped in echo chambers or filter bubbles on social media. The ideas of echo chambers and filter bubbles have been over hyped and under researched. As the mass media, even public service broadcasting in Britain, becomes increasingly confrontational and sensational, such as focusing on personal issues like anti-semitism and partygate, I have to come back to my conclusion before, that the proponents of different viewpoints have begun to take more ideological, righteous, or sectarian positions. Their opponents are not just wrong, they are portrayed as being bad if not evil.

This is dangerous for liberal democratic regimes like the UK and the US. Both have been viewed historically as having a ‘civic culture’ (Almond and Versa 1963: 8), defined by a culture based on “communication” and “consensus” in which diverse opinions are moderated by the structures and process of the political system with partisan competition and systems of checks and balances. This view was roundly criticised as simply a description of American politics post-World War II, as contrasted with less stable democratic systems leading up to the second world war, such as the Weimar Republic. However, there has been some face validity to this civic culture notion, at least up to the divisions surrounding the Vietnam War. Today, in that WordCloud, the idea of a civic culture seems ludicrous. 

 I don’t think we should be as focused on the dynamics of polarisation, social media, or the diversity of opinions, but more on the dynamics of this politically sectarian self-righteousness that fosters incivility and the decline of civil discourse.[2] Maybe we should just focus on the discourse – how to promote awareness of the importance of civil discourse? Restoring civility in politics could be central to mitigating what seems to be a decline of the stability of our political processes.

That said, even the discussion of civility in politics has been steeped in claims that one or another sectarian group is to blame, such as blaming one or another leader or party for the decline in civility.[3] I will not put all the blame on parliamentarians, but they can help provide a model of civil discourse that might help move communication in a more productive direction. They are not providing a good model in 2022. Even guidelines on effective negotiation argue that you should never attack the person, but focus on the ideas or actions. Civility would support many aims of liberal democratic societies.

There is even a book about these issues!

References

Almond, G. A., and Verba, S. (1963), The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dutton, W. H. (2017), Fake News, Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles: Underresearched and Overhyped, The Conversation, 5 May: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688

Walter, A. S. (2021) (ed), Political Incivility in the Parliamentary, Electoral and Media Arena: Crossing Boundaries. London: Routledge.


[1] https://www.thepoke.co.uk/2022/04/19/word-cloud-shows-public-mostly-use-liar-to-describe-pm/

[2] See a letter to the editor of USA Today by David Engen (2018), ‘We’re all Americans. Let’s be civil, please.’, Your Say section of USA Today, 2 July: page 5A.

[3] Wise, J. (2018), ‘Poll: More Voters Blame Trump than Dems for Lack of Civility’, The Hill, 3 July: http://thehill.com/homenews/395371-poll-more-voters-blame-trump-than-dems-for-lack-of-civility

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