My ConHome column: We live in an age of OUTRAGE that’s killing political debate

by Stephen Tall on December 18, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

We live in an age of outrage in which a clumsily expressed remark will be punished without mercy. Just ask the Conservatives’ Baroness Jenkin, whose genuine, long-standing commitment to tackle food poverty was brushed aside by opponents ready to vilify her for her ill-chosen ad lib that “poor people don’t know how to cook”.

Or, alternatively, ask Labour’s Emily Thornberry, whose hastily-tweeted-repented-at-leisure photo, appearing to sneer at England flag-brandishing white van drivers, reportedly provoked her party leader to hitherto unknown heights of anger. I have far more sympathy for the well-intentioned Jenkin than I do for the often-haughty Thornberry, but in both cases the front-page hyper-reaction was crazily disproportionate.

Moderateness is, it seems, unfashionable. Maybe we’re all grumpily living out the hangover of the Great Recession, but sweet reason seems to have had its day. Or perhaps it’s the enforced brevity of anti-social media, in which character-heavy context, nuance and fairness are sacrificed for the quick fix of instantaneity.

I like to think, especially when wallowing in Yuletide, that there is, inside each of us, a generosity of spirit — call it empathy — which not only respects the other person’s point of view, but is also capable of understanding their mistakes. That, while our Bad Angel might be tempting us to put the boot in at the first, last and every opportunity, we will listen to our Good Angel pointing out that each of us puts our foot in it sometimes. There, but for the grace of God, self-destruct us all.

Would it be so hard for the anti-Tories among us to acknowledge that Baroness Jenkin’s point — that some of those living in poverty spend more than they need to on food because they lack the time or the energy or the expertise to cook a cheaper, more wholesome, meal — has validity? And would it be so hard for the Labour-haters among us to recognise that Emily Thornberry’s presumption about Rochester’s White Van Dan is the sort of sweeping generalisation of which we’re all sometimes guilty, and that to lose your job over it is a bit harsh?

Is it naive even to ask the question? Tribalism is now all the rage, literally. Not so long ago, if your public utterances were littered with red-mist adjectives — angry, outraged, disgusted — you’d have been dismissed as a green-ink letter-writer, whose frothings should be deservedly ignored. But now fulmination is vogue, brandished as proof that you care more than others, an attention-seeking fast-track to getting noticed.

It’s not enough any more merely to disagree with the Government or the Opposition: you must hate, mock and deride not only their actions, but also their motivations. “All MPs are self-interested crooks in it only for themselves,” goes up the popular cry on a thousand talk-in shows and online message-boards. And so the ‘meme’ spreads, even if it means crudely distorting the truth — as with those infamous pictures allegedly showing a packed House of Commons discussing MPs’ pay, but virtually empty when [insert campaigner’s pet peeve] is being debated, eagerly shared by ‘slacktivists’ as if to demonstrate the adage that a lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes.

We see it in BBC1’s Question Time, once a sober arena for informed debate on the issues of the day, now a ratings-chasing entertainment bear-pit, where audience, panellists and programme-makers are in cahoots to give the viewers what they want: a glib, knockabout exchange of carefully rehearsed lines (including the weekly immigration showdown), loudly applauded by whichever section of the public has had its pre-existing bias confirmed, while the watching masses passively but aggressively tweet along to their hearts’ discontent. Forget about Enlightenment, we just want to be fired up. We used to be bought off with bread and circuses, today we settle for public figures oh-so-lightly toasted on the politicos’ version of Jeremy Kyle.

None of this is to deny we should ever get angry or outraged or disgusted. It can have its place. For me it happens when I hear politicians indulging in dog-whistling racism, such as suggesting that people should be concerned if Romanians move in next door. But, even then, does shouting, that oral CAPS LOCK which signals irrationality, make us more listened to? ‘Thaw with her gentle persuasion is more powerful than Thor with his hammer. The one melts, the other breaks into pieces,’ as Henry David Thoreau put it.

The danger is this. If public debate becomes pub banter, existing only as shouting matches between diametrically opposed sides trading populist soundbites — aiming only to rabble-rouse, not to win over — it drowns out constructive argument.

Let’s take the coming election. I can foresee the next five months’ economic argy-bargy. Labour will try and frighten voters that the Conservatives will take us back to the 1930s (Evil Tories!). The Conservatives will try and frighten voters that Labour will take us back to the 1970s (Reckless Socialists!).

This colourful rhetoric will camouflage the grey reality: neither party yet has a clue how they’ll make the next five years’ budget figures add up, so they’ll muddle through with a combination of ill-considered, ad hoc spending cuts, tax rises and continued borrowing. We should be questioning them now, demanding straight answers to straight questions based on the available facts. How much easier it is, though, to indulge the parties’ distraction-propaganda (“We have a plan, that lot don’t, nah nah nah”) and settle for the same-old point-scoring masquerading as political debate.

But it isn’t just the politicians’ responsibility to level with us. We voters — and the media — need to give them the space to tell the truth. If they think we can’t handle honesty they’ll hold back. If they think we’ll swallow only easy answers that’s what they’ll spoon-feed us. If they’re worried how we’ll react to hard truths, then they’ll pretend they have simple, quick-fix solutions to complex, deep-seated problems.

It’s up to us, really. Do we want to live in a perpetual hair-trigger state of zealous agitation, poised to jump down our politicians’ throats any time they mess up or say something we don’t much like? If yes, then they will either glory in their own martyrdom, or else retreat to the banal safety of telling us only what they think we want to hear. What I’d like is very straightforward: frank, honest and open debate about big issues minus the assumption that those who disagree also eat babies for breakfast. That’s not too much to ask for this Christmas, is it?