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The culture of nastiness and the paradox of civility

Headlines are by their very nature designed to catch the eye, but Teddy Wayne’s ‘The Culture of Nastiness’ (New York Times, 18 February 2017) certainly caught my attention. Why? Because increasing survey evidence and datasets have identified growing social concerns about declining levels of civility. In the United States, for example, a recent poll found that 75% of those members of public surveyed believe that incivility has risen to crisis levels, 60% expect civility to get worse in the next few years. Politics, it would seem, has become raw, rude, direct, divisive… and don’t just think Trump… the rise of nationalist populism across the globe seems to have shifted the civic culture in ways that we really don’t understand or know how to deal with. The problem is that no one seems to know whom to blame. There are lots of culprits in the firing line for public condemnation (politicians, activists, bloggers, tweeters, journalists, shock jocks, etc.) but I cannot help but think that the challenge goes beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and raises far deeper issues of social interaction, social learning, and social capital.

In terms of understanding the emergence of this ‘culture of nastiness’ or – more specifically – the perception that levels of civility have or are being eroded, might begin from three positions. The first emphasizing ‘the vortex’, the second, ‘the vacum’, and third, ‘the twist.’

‘The vortex’ is rather obvious and highlights the manner in which being rude to an individual, organisation, or community generally provokes similarly bad-mannered responses that set in motion a sequence of increasingly unfriendly and discourteous interactions. Can you think of an occasion when being rude actually served a positive end? It’s possible that comedy and satire can use insolence and vulgarity to good effect but this is the exception rather then the rule. Meryl Streep was therefore onto something when she used her Golden Globes speech to suggest that ‘disrespect invites disrespect.’ The problem is, however, is that without someone brave enough or diplomatic enough (ideally both) to break this self-sustaining negative dynamic, all we end up with is yaa-boo playground politics.

 Politics, it would seem, has become raw, rude, direct, divisive… and don’t just think Trump.

‘The vacum’ focuses on how hard it is to break out of incivility exactly because it demands a politician or party with the energy and ambition to recalibrate politics. This is a critical point. If the political system was a computer you’d probably switch it off at the wall and re-boot, you might even download some new software or anti-virus protection. The problem is that constitutional re-engineering is more difficult because those with the capacity to ‘reboot’ have little incentive to push the button. There is no clear alternative model of civil politics to transfer to and all the risks rests with those who dare to adopt a different style of politics. What’s more, the whole nature of the ‘culture of nastiness’ rests upon the destruction and havoc it casts upon those souls who do attempt to compromise, listen, accommodate, etc. These are the core values of democratic politics – the oil that stops the system grinding to a halt – and yet for ‘nasty people’ these traits are defined and dismissed as weakness. One of the saddest things about the murder of the British politician Jo Cox in June 2016 was the manner in which the initial period of open social reflection about the emergence of a culture of nastiness was so short-lived. After briefly doffing their caps media and main political parties quickly reverted to politics as normal.

And then there is ‘the twist’ (‘hook’ or ‘barb’). The contemporary analysis of the problem with democracy seems increasingly focused upon the unintended consequences of what is often termed ‘political correctness’. The ‘paradox of civility’ is therefore the manner in which the emergence of a culture shift that explicitly embraced social civility and understanding is now blamed for fuelling a culture of nastiness. Let me put this slightly differently, a set of social mores that became popularly embedded for around twenty years in an attempt to avoid words, terms, or behaviour that might exclude or offend certain sections of society has now been highlighted as a cause of the increase in behaviour that is explicitly designed to discriminate. To some extent this is not as novel – as twisty – as you might have thought. Right-wingers have attacked the ‘PC brigade’ for decades but the contemporary situation is quite different; it has, to some extent, been legitimated by the electoral success of those candidates and parties who claim to express the long-standing frustrations of the politically disillusioned and disenfranchised.

There is a certain repressive Freudian logic at play: individuals must be free to vent their emotional beliefs – no matter how irrational or hurtful they may be – in order to ensure a healthy open discussion of a full range of social concerns. Indeed, so the logic goes, the problem with the liberal elite that populists seek to displace is that they put political correctness above common sense. Large sections of the public could not voice their concerns about immigration, crime, or equality for fear of being immediately labelled as racist or bigoted…populist nationalism therefore provided exactly the lightning rod that allowed such frustrations to be vented. And vented they have done and continue to do…we are trapped in a vortex… a spiral of cynicism that – without the emergence of a new politics of civility – risks making political failure and further disillusionment almost inevitable.

Featured image credit: Megaphon by floeschie. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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