The selection of ‘toxic’ as the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2018 sets the scene for 2019 as well. The level of toxicity, especially in politics, is increasing and nothing is being done to try to reverse the trend.
Toxic (meaning “poisonous; relating to or caused by poison; very bad, unpleasant, or harmful”) is a perfect picture of modern politics and political discourse having moved beyond the traditional environmental and health meanings.
The toxic political environment has been heightened in the UK by the discussion over Brexit and with PM now having a deal to present to Ministers, Parliament and the public, there is a real danger that we are entering the toxic phase of the process.
It is too easy to ‘blame’ social media for what is a less polite and consensual politics. Whilst social media may have given President Trump a direct connection with the world, it has also been a great driver for change, helping for instance shed light of the appalling behaviours that has given rise to the #MeToo movement. Social media’s empowering of voices empowers a range of voices.
Complaints of an echo chamber are not the fault of social media companies but of those who choose to limit their intake and ‘block’ a view of the world with which they do not agree. Free will and choice are being expressed.
The more extreme a position one side of the argument takes then the other side appears to have to take an equal and directly opposite position. The perception of being consensual or trying to adopt a middle way is currently a sign of weakness, a betrayal of real principles of a compromise too far. If social media is to be blamed then the ‘traditional‘ media is not without fault as well. The media, in their bid for balance, then seems obliged to carry both extreme views to ensure that a fair debate takes place.
Even the occasional mainstream journalist is reverting to toxic language and having to delate tweets.
Part of the toxic political environment is also the rise of the language of violence, especially directed towards female politicians and other leaders, alongside the very real threat of actual violence. Now social media companies can do more where it comes to such threats.
Politicians, as well as more generally across societies, are adopting more extreme positions in arguments with little listening done on either side. But this is often deliberate. The language is part of the political tactics to appeal to certain groups of voters. Responses to the ‘other side’ rely on attacks on the people rather than the being based on facts.
The smallest comment is then taken as a personal slight as if those involved are looking for the opportunity to hit back with even more extreme claims. It’s almost as if both sides appear to be goading each other.
But other words on the Oxford Dictionaries shortlist also seem to sum up the toxic nature of debate.
Cakeism – “is the belief that it is possible to enjoy or take advantage of both of two desirable but mutually exclusive alternatives at once.” This most often comes up in relation to Brexit with Boris Johnson as the most vociferous advocate of cakeism.
Gammon – “a derogatory term for an older middle-class white man whose face becomes flushed due to anger when expressing political (typically right-wing) opinions” and, although not in the list, the ‘left-wing’ alternative is ‘snowflake’. Both words have a sneering and completely dismissive nature.
Unfortunately, it may be that the only time that we move away from this toxic political environment and culture is when the more extreme views fail to deliver on their high promises. That though supposes that such ‘defeats’ do not create an even higher level of disappointment and toxicity in future years.