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June 17, 2016

Blog: The Vitriolic Culture that now exists in British Public Life

jo cox

The day after Jo Cox MP, was brutally murdered in her home town while attending the needs of her constituents, the pain and shock is just as raw.  Cox was a compassionate individual whose concern for her local constituents or women raped in Darfur always took centre stage of her activism – whether as a humanitarian or as a politician.  In the ever increasing divisive and polarised climate that now exists in British politics, Cox demonstrated that she was not interested in such pettiness.  She would zealously seek out allies no matter which party they belonged to, to help those clearly in need.  Her concern for Syrian refugees and children is a prime example.

Today the Times has revealed that Jo had received a stream of abusive and harassing messages over the last three months.  Whether they were linked to her attack yesterday is not known at this stage.  It isn’t a surprise to note that MPs increasingly are vilified, denigrated and despised.  The highly publicised stories of a few bad apples ends up tainting almost all MPs and this is clearly unfair, especially as so many selflessly give to public life.

The unpalatable truth is that there now exists a venomous culture in wider British public discourse which quite simply cannot handle different opinions, whether political, religious or social.  It manifests itself in the ugliest of ways often on social media where people revel and take great pleasure in tearing down the dignity of their opponents.

This culture ‘normalises’ extreme behaviour to the extent we don’t batter an eye lid.  How is it that it has become acceptable in our society for countless of people to send hundreds of graphic rape threats to a woman, who simply campaigned to have Jane Austen on British bank notes?  Caroline Criado-Perez received up to 50 rape threats an hour on Twitter.  Or to send a torrent of vile abuse to Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University after once appearing on Question Time?  Unable to respect Mary’s views, people filled her timeline with discussion about her pubic hair and vagina with some planning to “to plant a d*** in her mouth.”  It’s the same hideous uncivilised culture which resulted in Stella Creasy MP being sent online pictures of dead children after she had voted in favour for Syrian airstrikes against ISIS in December 2015.  After the vote, staff at her office had been bombarded with abusive phone calls.  Her Wiikipedia page had also been edited, describing her as a warmonger.

Yvette Cooper speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme argued that she believes there has been an increase in this ‘vitriolic’ culture.  Not only against MPs but anyone who throws themselves in British public life.  Creasy, Beard and others are not one off examples – this abuse is for all to see on social media sites, and you see it every single day. Holding an opinion or a different point of view appears to be punishable with unacceptable levels of abuse.

It’s almost too easy to point the finger at social media.  While there are so many beneficial aspects, there also exists a dark undercurrent where hiding behind a computer screen, people feel it is perfectly normal behaviour to throw around the most vilest abuse that they would never dream to do if speaking face to face to the person concerned.

Social media however is just the means. There is no doubt it has helped erase the red lines of what many would perceive as unacceptable behaviour.  But surely the root problem appears to be an inability to converse with basic respect while disagreeing with our opponents. We increasingly appear to struggle with appreciating different points of views and social media bears witness to how it brings out the worst in us.  While overcome with emotion when promoting or defending our own perspective, fervently believing only we can be right, we are blinded by our passion in committing the ugliest of behaviour, enthusiastically stomping all over the humanity of our opponent.  We take pleasure in seeing others follow suite and watch the intended target be barraged from all corners.  We dehumanise them so much so, we don’t see any problem in sending a rape threat or a death threat.  But it is done deliberately – to silence the people we disagree with who are engaged in public life, to intimidate them in halting their activism.  This vitriolic culture is a threat to not only our freedom of expression but the very foundation of our democracy.

How and why did it get to this and more importantly what can we do about it?

For a start everyone needs to take a long and hard look at themselves.  Changing this culture must include changing how we communicate and speak to each other. Recognising the humanity of even your enemies surely should be a given but being on the offensive and attacking each other results – often without people realising it – a loss in in their own humanity.

Jo talked about how it was “a joy to represent such a diverse community.”  Diversity in beliefs, in political or social opinions are a source of blessing, they strengthen our democracy in every way, furthering human thought and progress.  This vitriolic culture that seeks to instil fear and intimidate our opponents just because we disagree with them threatens our own society.  It is eating away not only through our democracy but also our humanity.