The rise of toxic politics: can we be civil?

Battle of Ideas festival 2019, Sunday 3 November, Barbican, London


After the Supreme Court ruling against prorogation, the subsequent debate in parliament was filled with invective on both sides. Looking at a world seemingly filled with slurs, angry social-media comments, inflammatory remarks about migrants, and nasty jibes about ‘stupid Brexiteers’ or ‘metropolitan remoaners’, many commentators have announced that we live in an age of ‘toxic politics’. The phrase supposedly captures the increasingly nasty, personal and hate-filled political discourse, as well as pointing to the corrosive effect of this on our political life.

Concerns about the incivility of political life are hardly new. In Homer’s Iliad, Thersites, a common soldier, questions the point of the war against Troy and is quickly denounced by Odysseus as a rabble-rouser, a braggart and a ‘thrower of words’. Thersites, personally insulting the high-born lords, stepped outside the bounds of civil discourse. Today, however, incivility seems to be not just an occasional moment where people step out of line, but the default feature of political life.

Perhaps part of the perception of toxicity comes from the increased role that social media plays. Sitting miles away from each other, people feel free to say things online they’d never say in person. In an age of supposedly short attention spans, media companies also feel pressured to play up conflict and division. Many allege that broadcasters also often present issues in a binary fashion that artificially creates angry disagreement and presents extreme political positions as if they were mainstream.

Nonetheless, this toxicity is as much a phenomenon offline as it is online. For example, 2019 saw the emergence of ‘milkshaking’ controversial figures, and the Remainer MP Anna Soubry complained of harassment by pro-Brexit activists who shouted slurs at her, including ‘traitor’ and ‘Nazi’, outside parliament. This echoed a widely condemned and now infamous Daily Mail front page naming top judges as ‘enemies of the people’. Prominent political figures, it seems, feel targeted by an increasingly angry and hostile public.

On the other hand, perhaps this supposedly toxic and divisive politics is simply the return of big political questions after the ‘end of history’ period; with the political consensus shattered by crisis after crisis, perhaps we’re so unused to profound arguments that they feel like toxic divisions. Perhaps, like high-born Odysseus, today’s political figures are just upset by ordinary people challenging their authority, dressing their insecurity up as talk of ‘toxicity’. What’s more, many point out that the increasingly personalised forms of identity politics that have emerged can make political disagreements feel like personal attacks, fuelling the perception of hatred and toxicity.

Are we witnessing a new, more toxic kind of politics? If so, what is the alternative? Should we lament a supposedly lost civility, or is the emergence of more forthright and angry disagreements in fact a good thing? What is the line between passionate disagreement and toxic bile? Who gets to decide what are acceptable and unacceptable forms of discourse? Ultimately, how do we live together when we disagree profoundly on major issues?

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; co-founder, Manifesto Club; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story

Timandra Harkness
journalist, writer and broadcaster; presenter, Radio 4’s FutureProofing and How to Disagree; comedian, Take A Risk; author, Big Data: does size matter?

Dr Deborah E Lipstadt
professor of Holocaust Studies, Emory University, Atlanta; author, Antisemitism: Here and Now; defendant, Irving v Penguin UK and Lipstadt (2000)

Jacob Mchangama
executive director, Justitia, a Copenhagen based human-rights think tank; host and narrator, Clear and Present Danger: a history of free speech podcast

James Tooley
professor of educational entrepreneurship and policy, University of Buckingham; author, The Beautiful Tree

Alastair Donald
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; convenor, Living Freedom; co-director, Future Cities Project