Illustration by Jamie Wignall

Prospect editorial: the outrage factory

Frivolity in the face of political emergency
September 21, 2018

Britain is, supposedly, months from leaving the EU. Our future trading and diplomatic relationships remain up in the air. A political crisis is looking likely; some fear an economic crisis will follow. The situation, then, is grave.

The first weekend of the new political term, however, was about nothing but words. The lead story on Saturday was about Chuka Umunna demanding that Jeremy Corbyn “call off the dogs” agitating to replace MPs on the Labour right, and the umbrage those activists took at being described in canine terms. On Sunday, the headlines shifted to the Tory side and Boris Johnson. The clownish former foreign secretary was attacked in stringent words by colleagues, not for his failure to come up with any alternative to Theresa May’s Brexit plan which he so derides, but for the grave offence he had supposedly created by likening it to “strapping a suicide vest” around the British constitution.

In the face of a fast-approaching emergency, our political culture throws up name-calling and righteous indignation. Earlier generations would have been aghast at the frivolity. But those of us who waste too much time on Twitter have grown wearily used to the tribalism, insults and mock outrage that are the warp and weft of this corner of the web. Alarmingly, although it remains a minority sport for the general population, politicians from Donald Trump down are addicted, as well as journalists who write about them. Consequently—as Rafael Behr vividly elucidates—it is becoming hardwired into our public life, debasing our democratic discussion.

There are deeper forces at play, including the long fallout from the financial crisis, which sharpens the sense of different parts of the community competing for scarce resources. But the whole architecture of Twitter—likes, retweets and crowing hashtags—inculcates a “them and us” mindset. It helps ramp up fraught discussions, such as that between the anti-imperialist left and the Jewish community on defining anti-Semitism, into ugly, fear-inducing feuds (see Daniel Levy). Ears are closed, empathy is smothered and extreme voices prevail.

Some see the root cause of the new tribalism as being the 21st-century turn of liberalism (see Will Self), with its rising emphasis on group experience and identity. That’s debatable, but Twitter is indubitably a technology to encourage a fracturing of world-views into perspectives that cannot be reconciled. The irony, as Self sees it, is that the language in which we debate liberalism’s woes embeds more liberal sensibilities than ever, creating a discourse with a self-righteous tone, where everyone rushes to take offence. Again, Twitter only encourages all this. And yet somehow, as you can see from my sign-off, I’m not quite ready to give it up yet.