Its Personal: Incivility Begins with Maligning Individuals

A lack of civility in politics and society is a problem that I have focused on before, but surprise, surprise – it is not diminishing.[1] If anything, it seems ever more rampant. It is important because it is at the base of growing polarization, what some have called ‘affective polarization’, which means that opposing political camps not only have major differences, but these differences can also lead to growing animosities toward one another.[2]

The issue comes home every morning as I read my daily newspapers and listen to broadcast news coverage. Politicians routinely focus on attacking the person rather than a policy, decision, mistake, or statement. The press follow suit. In the UK, the most obvious target has been the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, for whom it seems no insult is sparred. The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, gets his fair share as well, but the more powerful the figure – it seems – the more frequent and vitriolic the insults. These are UK journalists and politicians insulting their own politicians. Internationally, the insults are potentially worse. Think of the abuse and character assassination levelled at Putin or Trump.

Maligning individuals is not limited to politics. Think of debate over Twitter’s future which seems focused on personal attacks on Elon Musk albeit often for his political viewpoints and affiliations. Its personal.

There are many incentives to get personal. It’s so much easier – a lazy shorthand – to blame people rather than deal with the issues at hand, which are multiple and often complex. Personal attacks are also more ambiguous so you might need to defend the rationale for your insults. And politics is most often about voting individuals in or out, not on specific issues. And journalists love the audience draw of a personal insult or joke. However, getting personal undermines the potential for understanding or resolving conflict over key issues. It is an old but well-worn cliché that insults do not win arguments. Indeed, personal insults are not as constructive as dealing with the issues at stake.

If you must be personal, be positive. Vote for candidate x, for example, rather than name-calling candidate y. Identify the virtues of your favorite party’s proposal, rather than simply trash the other party. In my case, it is far more comfortable for me to speak to the virtues of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or the mistake of the Russian Federation launching an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation than to rant about Putin, as tempting has it is. The presence and power of Putin is symptomatic of a one person, near-totalitarian state that lacks political accountability.

If you think this is preachy, it is more of a note to myself than to you.  


My thanks to a reader who alerted me to a 2022 Democracy Report of the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg indicated that polarisation had increased to toxic levels in a growing number of nations. They have developed a term called toxic polarisation.

[1] For example, see my earlier blog on ‘A Crisis of Incivility’ at:

[2] I collaborated with Professors Xinzhi Zhang and Wan-Ying Lin at Hong Kong Baptist University, writing about affective polarization in Hong Kong politics in a paper presented at the 2022 conference of the International Communication Association in Paris in May. The paper focuses on the political consequences of online disagreement – one of which is what they call ‘affective polarization’.   

Comments are most welcome