On the BBC’s Question Time last week, Sally from Epsom captured the mood of the nation when she asked, ‘Why is everyone so angry about everything all of the time?’
It’s easy to see why Sally asked the question. Our national political dialogue has become increasingly toxic. Of course, Brexit has become the divisive issue of the hour. Remainers look sneeringly at ignorant and xenophobic Brexiteers. Brexiteers are frustrated with an out-of-touch ‘metropolitan elite’ who seem content to ignore the democratic will of the people. If the European elections were reflective of the national mood, the nation seems to more polarised than ever.
Even leaving Brexit aside, the tone of our political debate has become increasingly acrimonious. Last week, the organisers of Glastonbury booked in (and then subsequently cancelled) the band Killdren for this year’s festival, who’ve produced the imaginatively titled, ‘Kill Tory Scum’ . And this is not simply a right vs. left ideological battle. There is as much conflict within our political sub-cultures as between them. Luciana Berger and a number of other MPs recently left the Labour Party, describing it as having ‘a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation’ . The tone of debate on social media has become similarly acerbic. Those who disagree with us are no longer simply our intellectual opponents, but the enemy and the cause of everything that’s wrong with the world. Follow any political announcement on social media and you’ll often see the few thoughtful responses outweighed by a torrent of abuse directed towards the original poster.
Despite the fact that many in our culture pay lip service to tolerance, I think we’re seeing the very opposite of that attitude manifest itself across our screens. But why is this happening? Whilst we all recognise the problem, it’s much harder to identify the cause.
Some have suggested it’s the change in medium. Much of our argumentation takes place on social media, where the algorithms encourage aggressive and extreme views being shared. In a world where we’re competing with thousands of other voices for likes and retweets, the more controversial the content, the better. Of course, social media is also deeply dehumanising. We can’t see the other person we’re arguing with online, so we’re more likely to be offensive than if speaking to someone face-to-face.
Others have suggested the problem is more cultural. They blame the increasingly common feelings of outrage and victimhood. We’ve made being a victim a mark of moral superiority. Jonathan Haidt has described this as a ‘ramping up [of] mutual outrage’  and is so pessimistic about the increasingly negative dialogue that he’s predicted the possible break-up of the United States.
Rory Stewart, one of the candidates for the Conservative leadership, made a perceptive observation in answering the question when he argued, ‘The key word we need to get back to, which nobody ever uses in politics is the word love’.
I think he’s onto something. Many of us would agree that there’s a complete lack of respect, let alone love in our national debate. We need to have a much greater appreciation for the value of others. This means seeing each person as a fellow citizen, and as such, someone to be treated with respect, honour and dignity and who should, at the very least, be listened to. However, whilst there was a positive reaction from some in the audience, I don’t think most people will be convinced. Rory’s suggestion feels naive and detached from reality. It feels inconceivable that just by deciding to love our fellow citizens we’d see a transformation of our culture. After all, you can’t just tell people to love each other. It requires internal change. The best result would be some sort of superficial politeness. As such, I suspect that many will write off Rory’s suggestion as tokenistic political cliché.
I think to have this kind of mutual respect, and perhaps even a sense of love, requires an underlying sense that each person is valuable. It’s part of my Christian conviction that each person is made in the image of God and because of this has immense value and dignity. They deserve to be loved and listened to. This is the Christian basis for tolerance and mutual respect.
The challenge here is that I can’t see why you’d believe that if you’re not coming from a Christian worldview. From a purely secular perspective, why do people deserve to be loved? We can probably all think of people who have made a negative contribution to the common good (e.g. Nigel Farage or Jeremy Corbyn depending on your political persuasion). If that’s your view, you have no inherent reason to listen to or respect your enemies. If anything, the dominant progressive worldview would seek to create a better, more progressive world and would suggest that anything or anyone who gets in the way of that trajectory should be expunged from public life.
So, whilst I would agree with Rory that our culture is crying out for an infusion of love and mutual respect, I’m not convinced it’s possible without significant internal change. This is only possible when you start to believe that each person was created by God who loves them.
The proof is in the pudding. I’ve seen this in my church. We’re a random collection of folk coming from different walks of life and political persuasions. We have Tory and Labour activists. Young and old. Rich and poor. Brexiteers and Remainers. And yet we feel a strong sense of love, unity and common purpose. Because we’re united by something bigger than our individual political convictions – a belief in a God who transcends politics, who created all things and loves each person. I’m convinced it’s the answer to our contemporary anger problem.