vitriol on both sides of politics and a surge in popularity of far right
ideologies across Europe, the UK, Australia, the US, is how people have begun
describing the actions of ideologically driven killers as arising somehow from a
‘toxic’ political landscape.
It seems at first glance to be reasonable to assert this toxicity. I find it an appealing explanation, but I want to take it apart a little bit and let some air into it
People are the product of their times, and ideas are powerful things (says the
woman whose job relies on the idea that ideas are powerful). So, the idea of
ideas as toxic, insidious and impossible to resist, is in its own way very
difficult to challenge.
I want to believe the acts of the men who have committed
violent murder are somehow a natural outgrowth of the ‘climate’ of rage and
recrimination on twitter and ‘the media’. It helps me avoid negotiating the
fraught no-mans land between mental illness and evil where these people stand.
But talking about a toxic political landscape… that means in some way that we have control over these men – or that we are responsible in some way for enabling them, by allowing discourse on certain topics, for letting certain ideas to be aired. Are we?
I don't know. But if so, it worries me.
Calling people toxically politicised elides the problem of responsibility or individual belief. It’s nice to pretend that the people who are your intellectual opposition have been somehow poisoned, that they are under some sort of spell or evil influence, because you can’t get your head around the idea that they could honestly and rationally hold an alternative viewpoint to yours.
We know our position is right, right? Because we feel it is right.
And there’s so much information out there that it’s hard to canvas our own opinions, let alone reasonably weigh up the arguments of an opposition that seems vastly
ideologically distant from ours. It gets more appealing to dismiss and ignore alternative political positions if we can attribute those ‘stupid’ opinions to people of
different class or education than our own who don't know better than to swallow bad arguments whole.
It also leads inevitably to censorship, because we remove individual moral responsibility for parsing facts and opinions before (for example) picking up a gun.
One of the problems of discourse now, (from my perspective) is how we ‘naturalise’ our positions.
Calling LGBTI* rights human rights, and womens’ rights, human rights, and talking about rights as inherent to humanity means that we make our hard won equalities seem like… natural rights.
I mean, it makes us feel as though we’re entitled to them in the state of nature.
The rhetoric which positions political progress as a movement towards the natural is really powerful and effective, but it makes the rights we have seem not things which we reasoned our way towards. It makes us think we felt our way to them.
We make outcomes which are essentially political ones seem natural and normal – as though we are moving socially towards the most obviously right state of affairs,
the useful rhetorical tool presents two serious downsides:
the first, is that to present the end goal (for the modern liberal minded person; equality for people that erases the impact ‘non-choice’ difference like gender and sexuality and disability and arguably
religion) as natural, erases a lot of the work that has been done towards equality. The fights that were fought by heroic activists from Wollestonecraft to Wilberforce are slid by, as though they were the obvious next step in human progress, rather than huge leaps in radical thinking, persuasively argued for (and usually backed by economic drivers).
the second, is that giving something the label, ‘natural’ can reduce it from a thinking issue to a feeling issue. It’s no longer a point of logical discussion. It’s inherent to your feeling of your own identity, and so any attempt to deconstruct or critically engage with the tenets of the belief becomes a personal attack, with all the attendant stings of humiliation and rage.
What could be a logical discussion becomes killing words
because a debate about ideas becomes a debate about identity, and identity is
indisputable, being a matter of personality. If you argue someone’s identity,
you are asking them to deconstruct their personhood, and it’s a rare person
who’ll do that over the dinner table.