We used to be a mild-mannered people. Now random spite is the cornerstone of our crumbling culture
In belligerent Britain, something is going badly wrong. Moderation has been replaced by mindless fury, vile racism, sexism, homophobia and extreme conflict peppered with deliberately provocative obscenities. Every day in every way we slip deeper into the abyss.
Whatever happened to the UK’s traditional tolerance? What became of our renowned capacity for reasoned debate? Answer: they are both withering and dying on the poisonous vine of social media. RIP common decency and courtesy. Welcome to the Age of Hate.
No longer is this a country in which valid disagreements are conducted in a civilised fashion. If you voted Remain you’re an appalling elitist metropolitan snob. If you’re a Leaver… you’re just a racist moron. Tories… heartless bastards. Labour… Marxist lunatics. The whys and wherefores of the differing stances don’t seem to matter… it’s the noxious noise of the nasty name-calling that counts.
In this Brexit-split nation’s corroding cradle of democracy, intelligent arguments barely get a look-in. Instead, frothing opponents hurl horrible insults or – even worse – vow to physically harm or kill each other. Disturbingly, the women on the receiving end of these terrifying tirades are regularly threatened with rape. The atmosphere is rancid.
With an absurdly weak Prime Minister providing no leadership, a fractured cabinet fighting like a nest of vipers, the grotesque scandal of Grenfell and a chaotically rudderless approach to Europe, there is a communal sense that we’re falling apart at the seams. Like cornered rats in a citadel of uncertainty, we lash out angrily. Random spite is the new cornerstone of our crumbling culture.
In one of their rare near-life experiences, the ruffled residents of the Westminster bubble have discovered that they are far from immune. As Theresa May announced an urgent inquiry into the sinister trolling of parliamentary candidates, the Standards In Public Life watchdog warned that the political arena was fast approaching a ‘tipping point’ of viciousness.
The misuse of social media to harass, threaten and intimidate has been an unsavoury sign of modern times since Facebook and Twitter began. Especially for celebrities, sports stars and journalists. Not forgetting the frightened and confused civilians who suddenly find themselves in the spotlight.
Nevertheless, Downing Street initiatives to help the innocent victims of the fame game’s ferocious flip-side have been conspicuous by their absence. But now that – horror of horrors – politicians have become the new favourite targets, the PM has decided something must be done.
Cynically-minded observers might conclude that not only is this blatant nimbyism, it’s also just about the only issue in town on which the beleaguered May could expect cross-party support. A feeble and friendless leader desperate to ingratiate herself with her growing army of enemies on all sides of the house. Good luck with that.
But while ailing Mother Theresa’s motives may be questionable, there can be no doubt that her recognition of the escalating hate crisis is much more than political opportunism. It is clear that we have reached an alarming low point.
Ask the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg who was caught in the acrimonious crossfire of a particularly unedifying General Election campaign. Such was the level of abuse she suffered, her worried bosses were forced to hire a bodyguard to protect her. An unprecedented situation underlining how this once-benign country has gone from mild to wild. Tellingly, the dark threats came from both directions. The Corbynistas were convinced Laura was a secret Tory. The Conservatives insisted she was conspiring against them. Neither accusation was remotely true. But hate is in the eye of the beholder.
Similarly, redoubtable Remainer Gina Miller learned to her cost that the limelight can be a scary place. Proving that cyber-thuggery has a broad demographic, Rhodri Philipps – the 4th Viscount St Davids (whatever that is) – posted on Facebook the offer of a £5,000 reward to anyone who would kill Miller, whom he described as ‘a bloody troublesome first-generation immigrant’. His Lordship also called the object of his prejudice ‘a boat jumper’, a racist reference to her British Guyanese origins. He is currently serving a 12-week sentence at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Meanwhile, Miller has hired a bodyguard. Do you see a pattern emerging?
Some might say that the venomous Viscount’s prosecution is a triumph for our hate crime laws. Home Secretary Amber Rudd confidently asserted that: ‘Hate has no place in a country that works for everyone.’ The trouble is, in belligerent Britain, hate is thriving. Random hatred is turning into one of our most popular pastimes. It’s a growth industry. To put it mildly, the hate crime laws are doing little or nothing to prevent hate crimes.
The warriors of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram believe that they act with impunity. Either because they operate under a cloak of anonymity or because they think it’s their absolute right to say what the hell they like about anyone on the telly. Diane Abbott for example, who is constantly vilified by the social media lynch mob. For her trinity of sins – being black, female and left wing – the Shadow Home Secretary is subjected to a tidal wave of hate-speak on a 24/7 basis.
Once, these disaffected cyber-soldiers would have moaned impotently in the pub. But now, empowered by the automatic publication of their bile, their sense of entitlement fills them with a feeling of authority. As someone who appears on the box from time to time, I can confirm that as far as many viewers are concerned you are completely dehumanised. Their property to treat in whatever way they see fit. Most of them have no idea that by promising to tear me limb from limb they are committing a crime. As opposed to a public service. But seriously, it’s no joke.
The harsh reality is that attacking politicians is merely the tip of a pernicious iceberg. MPs and ministers just happen to be easy targets. The trolling of the famous is getting worse. Actors, TV personalities and sports stars are considered to be fair game. Newspaper writers and broadcast journalists regard outrageous insults and threats to be part of the job. When I wrote a television column for the Sunday Mirror one disgruntled reader threatened to slaughter me and my family because he didn’t like my review. I really didn’t think it was that bad.
Although all you can do is laugh, it’s no laughing matter. While most of these sad little snipers are pathetic losers for whom murderous intent is a self-aggrandising fantasy, there is always the grim possibility that their volley of insults could escalate into a Jo Cox situation. In the Age of Hate, danger is all around us.
In a bid to identify the reasons for the hate epidemic, the government’s trolling inquiry is set to interrogate representatives of the social media companies. Makes sense. But it will also be worth asking the question: why are seething citizens leaving school and university with no ability to accept that others have a right to their own opinions? Why does political disagreement in the 21st century result in eruptions of violent anger? No matter how dire the circumstances, mild-mannered Brits didn’t used to be like this.
Naturally, the Tories and Labour blame each other for the rise and rise of hate-filled abuse. Big surprise. Like squabbling schoolkids, they blame each other for everything. But now some of Westminster’s warring factions appear to be turning on themselves. Here’s Vote Leave supremo Dominic Cummings elegantly expressing his concerns over committed Leaver and Brexit Secretary David Davis: ‘Thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus’. And where did Cummings register his sophisticated critique? On Twitter. Where else?
Kevin O’Sullivan was television reviewer for the Sunday Mirror for 10 years, is resident critic for The Wright Stuff, and features on Radio 5’s Afternoon Edition Television Club. He also reviews at tvkev.co.uk