TROLLS AND TRIBULATIONS-
When we keep people who are not like us at a distance, they tend to become undifferentiated and dehumanised. We need to remain open to diverse opinions and ways of being. But we also need to champion what we share in common.
At a Westminster Hall debate in the summer of 2017, it was revealed that the Conservative whips’ office deals with ‘at least three credible threats’ to their MPs every week. Labour’s Diane Abbot has similarly described rape and death threats against her online. Until 2016, complacent commentators would dismiss this kind of intimidation as the price of being a political figure. Then the Labour MP, Jo Cox, was murdered by a right-wing extremist.
Lots of bullies pour out their dark, disturbing vitriol online because they want to hurt and intimidate their opponents emotionally rather than carry out the threats they make. But you never know who is serious, which is the purpose of such bullying. Four out of five in a survey of 239 MPs said they were victims of aggressive or intrusive behaviour. This must take a toll on both welfare and performance.
The debate is whether things have got worse; that we are getting angrier than before. One thing is clear: the environment has changed. Jesus said it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. Until recently, the mouth could only speak to a few people at a time. Now it has a global audience. The anonymity and disinhibition the internet affords allows people to be shockingly cruel if they want to be, enabling them to articulate thoughts that should remain in the mind as unworthy of expression. It is also much easier to reach your target online than when a physical address was required.
It has been argued that the growth of identity politics has made politics one of the few remaining acceptable forms of tribalism. This is likely overstated, not least because sexism and racism appear to have spirited themselves successfully into the twenty-first century. There is, nevertheless, evidence of polarisation in politics. We mostly think of the resurgence of the extreme right, but even mainstream politics has been affected and evidence from the United States shows this.
In the US in 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would be displeased if their son or daughter married a member of the other party. In 2010, 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats said they would be. The Pew Research Centre has backed this up by showing that ‘very unfavourable’ views of Democrats by Republicans and vice versa have more than doubled between 1992 and 2014. Having a heavily partisan US President with an unregulated and vindictive online presence is not likely to help these statistics. British people may feel their story is different, but Brexit has brought a lot of unpleasantness and incivility to the surface.
When we keep the people who are not like us at a distance, they tend to become undifferentiated and dehumanised. We need to remain open to diverse opinions, beliefs and ways of being. But we also need to champion what we share in common. Diversity without solidarity makes for a fragile community; solidarity without diversity makes for an unwelcoming one.
We each have digital influence and so it might be worth us thinking through a set of personal values to shape our online presence. To keep the channels open to those who think differently to us rather than de-friending them is to encourage diversity. We might find that easier were they to express their opinions less with a view to provoking others. But they might say the same of us.
To love our digital neighbour is to choose not to post with a view to showing them how much we love ourselves and to imagine how they might feel about what we write before they read it.
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