In the fifth in his series on ‘Faith in Democracy’, Jonathan Chaplin looks at the quality of our public speech, and argues that all is not lost – yet. 02/08/2021
In today’s climate, an article on political speech would be expected to launch immediately into an anguished lament over the ‘toxic’ quality of much public communication, with the badlands of social media especially in one’s sights. I’ll get there. But it is salutary to begin by recalling that the house has not entirely burnt down. We should not be paralysed by pre–emptive despair about the deteriorating quality of our political talk.
Dozens of think–tanks and research bodies annually produce hundreds of carefully researched, closely argued and stylistically–tempered reports on many dimensions of social life and public policy. Campaigning groups, professional associations and lobbying organisations issue constant outpourings of (mostly) well–crafted position papers, policy briefings or media releases.
Even communications from political parties can be healthy. Read a few party manifestos and you’ll see that they are, mostly, serious, coherent and civil in tone, even if trading too much in platitudes (‘we are committed to unleashing the potential of all our people’) or marshalling evidence selectively (‘while we were in office, the NHS hired 10,000 nurses’).
Election communications, in stark contrast, are increasingly performative rather than informative, aiming to sway emotions rather than inform minds. The same tendency was seen in spades during the referendum. A notorious example was the Leave campaign’s cynical exploitation of the false claim that leaving the EU would free up £350m annually for the NHS. Dominic Cummings’ visible smirk, when challenged on this in Laura Kuenssberg’s recent interview, displayed that insouciant cynicism at its worst.
But there are good examples here too. Even in Parliament plenty of healthy political communication goes on, such as in the proceedings of Select Committees. Setting aside the partisan point–scoring and grandstanding that still mar them, they often allow more forensic and respectful scrutiny of public policies or acts of government, and more considered and truthful defences of them, than most people know. They are certainly healthier arenas of communication than the set–piece, mock–gladiatorial ‘debates’ in the Commons, which are poorly attended anyway and in which MPs present often seem more interested in their phones than in the speakers. House of Lords debates are more sedate but also more instructive. Many All–Party Parliamentary Groups, largely unseen by the public, conduct important and balanced deliberations on all aspects of public policy.
For those whose conduits of political information are overwhelmingly digital, the above examples may seem dated and cumbersome. They may be tempted to wonder why they should waste all that time on long documents and verbose speeches when they can access all they need with a few targeted web searches – and then fulfil their democratic duties by clicking on a few petitions. But this would betray a troubling impatience with democracy itself, the lifeblood of which is the practice of extended, probing and robust dialogues about complex matters of justice and the common good.
Such practices are under serious threat from many directions. Among them is indeed social media. On the one hand, the extraordinary power for good of social media must be celebrated. It is now possible to mount a global campaign on an urgent human rights issue in hours – one of the virtues of ‘digital democracy’. And as we have learned over the last year and a half, one can at times experience meaningful dialogue with fellow citizens and politicians without all the costs of physical assembly (even if Zoom is no substitute for in–person contact).
On the other hand, the dangerous pathologies enabled by social media are palpable and pervasive. Probably the most obvious is that social media platforms greatly amplify the voices of small numbers of deeply nasty and prejudiced people and organisations, permitting them to spew their bile indiscriminately over vulnerable people but behind a cowardly veil of anonymity.
Among the exploiters of such platforms are powerful lie merchants. According to a 2018 study published in Science by three MIT professors, “falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth, and reach their first 1,500 people six times faster.”
Social media platforms have also shown themselves to be vulnerable to manipulation by unaccountable commercial or political organisations able to exploit their access (licit or illicit) to powerful data–harvesting systems. This allows the calculated deployment of hyper–targeted content in order to incite unwitting recipients into perceptions of reality, or purchasing and voting decisions, that serve their malign interests. A recent NPR study of Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire Facebook empire concluded that the Daily Wire has “turned anger into an art form and recycled content into a business model,” calculating that in May 2021 it “generated more Facebook engagement on its articles than The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News and CNN combined.”
Social media has other subtly corrosive effects. It allows those with special interests or narrow horizons – which is all of us some of the time – to huddle in echo–chambers of self–reinforcing partisanship rather than having to submit our opinions to the scrutiny of larger forums.
Such a silo–isation of public life also risks feeding a ‘post–truth society’ in which political actors assume they are entitled to – and now have the technical capacity to – fabricate their own renditions of the truth. After all, if the fate of my country (or at least, my tribe) hangs on the success of ‘my truth’, subjecting myself to some independent test of truth – probably controlled by hostile ‘elites’ anyway – would actually be to betray that larger cause.
The further we get to such a point, political speech no longer functions as ‘communication’ at all. The very concept of communication is dialogical, assuming the dignity and rationality of those with whom we are engaging and inviting their response. ‘Post–truth’ speech, however, becomes a debased form of propaganda intended to bully opponents into submission – as exemplified most egregiously by President Trump. When we enter that dark tunnel, the very distinction between propaganda and truthful speech loses all meaning.
Even if we begin to rein in these very obvious distortions of political communication, we still need to confront worrying longer–term trends. The very ubiquity of digital democracy, whatever its virtues, risks sapping our commitment to, and undermining our skills for, the slower, harder tasks of politics: having those extended conversations; building vibrant civic associations or local communities; delivering election leaflets on those proverbial wet November evenings. Social media can assist such activities but can never replace them. Democratic politics can thrive only on embodied encounters between ‘acting persons’, as John Paul II described human beings.
‘Saving’ wholesome political communication involves multiple responses. It demands significant national and global regulation of the tech giants controlling social media and a harnessing of such tools towards democratic ends. It requires a new sense of public responsibility in mainstream media, which itself will only occur if ownership is diversified. Civil society organisations such as faith communities, political parties and educational institutions will need to renew their commitment to serious political education and civic practices. Without such steps we increasingly risk becoming mere passive, easily manipulable consumers of politics, declining imperceptibly into ‘zombie democracy’.
Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity is published by SCM.
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