The images of political violence in America over the last few days worry me greatly. They worry me most because I can see the seeds of such political violence re-emerging in the UK. Democracy is supposed to be the antidote to such violence. Democracy is supposed to give political power to all so that individuals and groups can use the ballot box and not the streets to voice their grievances. I worry that western democracies, like an antibiotic that fails to cure ever more resistant virus strains, are becoming less and less effective at securing the cohesion that every functional society must have.
Modern political violence can be physical like we have seen in America, or in the indiscriminate devastating attacks in Spain and Finland over recent days. However, it can also be emotional and expressed through threats, abuse, and ostracisation. All these examples have one common theme: individuals or groups exerting power in order to force a certain identity, belief system or philosophy upon others. They all involve the denigration and dehumanisation of the ‘other’. By this, I mean the process of identifying anyone in opposition to their views as somehow sub-human.
I was born in 1979, a tumultuous period in British politics and for the world. The cold war had reached its end game. The battle between communism and capitalism was in its last throes. I first started to become politically aware during the early 1990’s. The Berlin Wall had fallen, we were post ideology; religion and the state appeared to have been almost entirely separated. The politics of identity and forced conversion appeared to be at an end. Human society, at least in the ‘West’ appeared to have made positive progress.
Had we reached a new and more civilised accommodation with our fellow man? Economies boomed, almost all social indicators of well-being (crime, health, wealth etc.) saw unprecedented positive trajectories. For many in the UK the quality of life appeared to indicate that they were living in a true golden age. The challenge for western governments was to extend the benefits of this golden age to those within our communities who were not yet experiencing it.
However, as I sit here writing, that consensus seems a long way off. So how did we get here? Never a day passes when I don’t read angry, hate filled attempts at forced conversion on my social media feeds. People demonstrating hatred towards those purely on the basis of how they believe society should be organised, which god they worship or don’t, who they love, the pronouns they use to describe others, the clothes they wear, the food they eat, which school they went to….the list is infinite. It seems that no matter how innocuous your life is there’s a group of people on Twitter who will really hate you for it.
Often individuals express themselves outside of the tolerance of a certain group. They can suddenly find themselves the subject of condemnation from hundreds if not thousands of social media users. The social media equivalent of public torture jeered on by the masses. The ultimate demonstration of cyber forced conversion. After such a display who would dare to risk the fury of the mob in the future? Unsurprisingly those who do wield real power have seen the potential of manipulating and drawing upon this potential for spontaneous outrage and hatred for political or commercial advantage.
I’m very concerned about the future of politics in the west. Contemporary political discourse is riddled with attempts at forced conversion. Our politicians, supported by baying traditional and social media mobs attempt to assassinate each other’s character. Supposedly authoritative voices on current affairs shows demonstrate ever more contempt for each other and even the hosts of such shows have seemingly abandoned any attempt to objectively chair debates. Elected officials regularly receive death threats, even from those supposedly on their same side.
Hatred almost inevitably leads to violence. If we are to avoid our fractured political climate descending further then we all need to have a hard look at ourselves in the mirror. We need to start listening and debating rather than denigrating and condemning. We need to push political power downwards into the hands of all individuals so that everybody feels part of the body politic. We need to get back to the things that matter. Delivering the relative golden age many have experienced in the UK to everybody within our society.
My concern is that the UK is slipping into a US style culture war. The same group of people always bears the brunt of the inevitable political paralysis culture wars bring. Those who had least to lose in the first place.