Following on from the shocking murder of MP Jo Cox, we must face the facts and see how easily a toxic debate can create a poisonous culture that leads to an utterly appalling outcome. How we discuss issues and describe those we do not agree with can have serious, life-threatening consequences. Freedom of speech must always be exercised responsibly and with consideration for our fellow-citizens.
Imagine the situation. You’re a lonely middle-aged man who for many years has nursed a grievance against a world that seems stacked against you. Distressed by how quickly your country is changing, you feel adrift and helpless, increasingly sceptical of those who promise so much, yet deliver so little. Much of your view of what is happening outside is shaped by snippets of news and complaints you consume online, divorced from context and frequently reflecting embittered, angry prejudices. Slowly, your thinking is being warped and you start to believe that “something must be done” to fix all these problems that never seem to be sorted out.
Suddenly, a new group of mavericks and wannabe revolutionaries appears and seems to offer an answer to all your gripes – one swift, simple solution that will transform Britain for the better. They accuse those who disagree of being liars, scaremongers and traitors. As these rhetorical flourishes trip off their tongues, they fail to consider how others will follow through on accusations, reaching with a twisted, sickening logic, fatal conclusions.
Those who live on the edge – unbalanced and isolated from human society – need to be remembered. Their frail mental health is all too easily shattered by seemingly respectable politicians pandering to prejudice, justifying their grievances and whipping-up their passions. Here’s the crux of this matter:
There are those who say we must “take our country back”, who castigate those on one side of an argument as an “elite”, in the pay of an establishment, in it for themselves and detached from the real world. Those people have to realise that their aggressive words and dangerous rhetoric have consequences. If you try to light a fuse, you can’t be surprised when it catches.
The Internet enables small groups of individuals to coalesce and whip each other into a frenzy over perceived injustices. Whilst the vast majority can sustain such passions without breaking into physical violence, there are a (mercifully) small number who cannot cope with the deluge of despair and crack. We might breathe a similar cultural air but what mildly irritates some can infuriate others, until breaking point is reached.
We must learn to watch our words carefully and engage in civilised debate, rather than the dialectic equivalent of bare-knuckle boxing. Life is too precious, the bonds of community too important, to be jeopardised when it feels like we’re losing the argument. Mutual respect – treating one another as we would like to be treated – is the cornerstone of democracy and true freedom.