This is my Broadsheet opinion piece from June 20th, written in the aftermath of the horrific murder of Labour MP, Jo Cox. broadsheet.ie/ad-hominemphobia/
As people struggle to come to terms with how Jo Cox MP could be so brutally slain outside her constituency clinic, many have focused on the coarsening of public debate and the abuse, both actual and online, aimed at politicians.
Though there has undeniably been a coarsening of public debate in recent years, we should not delude ourselves that there was once a golden age when all political discussion was genteel and free from ad hominem attacks.
Politics has always been a rough trade where vigorous and full bodied exchanges are the order of the day. Take this robust response from Frank Aiken T.D. in Dáil Éireann in July 1959, which I found while doing some research on Irish diplomatic history.
Incensed by Fine Gael claims that he was too supportive of Chinese representation at the U.N. and that he had chosen to attend a U.N. meeting instead of the funeral of Pope Pius XII, Aiken, who was Foreign Minister at the time, fumed:
He [Deputy McGilligan] is a low type who would climb on the body of a dead Pope to have a crack at Fianna Fáil.
Can you imagine the memes if someone said that today? But blaming Social Media alone for the eroding of civility in public discourse, as some have done in recent days, is to miss a bigger point.
Of course there are armies of irresponsible anonymous online warriors out there ready to pour a stream of bile and abuse on anyone who disagrees with them or points out that their heroes have feet of clay.
They are on both the left and right. Indeed, some of the most illiberal vitriol can come from those styling themselves as liberal, but whose social media output is anything but.
There are lone wolves and there are organised hoards. Our own domestic example of the hoard are the Shinner-bots, a virtual battalion of anonymous trolls (with the emphasis on ‘anonymous’).
Within minutes of Gerry Adams being criticised online for his disgraceful ‘Django’ tweet, the Shinner-bots were insulting and lambasting anyone who dared to question the actions of the dear leader. Their goal: smother the critics by saying and posting anything necessary o shut down the discussion and drive their opponents offline.
Sadly, politicians and journalists, particularly female, come in for equally appalling treatment on social media. The attacks on journalists are probably more pernicious, as the aim is to influence their reporting not by weight of facts and debate, but by simple bullying.
But the point to remember is that the vast majority of people do not post or talk about politics on social media. Just in the same way as the majority of the people who vote for an individual TD do not contact them by email, letter or phone.
Most people are part of what Richard Nixon (OK, not the first name to leap to mind when talking about open dialogue) termed: “The Silent Majority”, the people who are following events, but who are not protesting, speaking out or expressing their political opinions beyond the ballot box or the odd discussion at home or in the pub.
Blaming the coarsening of debate on social media alone is akin to attributing the rise of Hitler to the invention of valve radio. It is a factor, particularly the facility for anonymous posting which certainly has helped the erosion of mutual respect in discussion, but there are other significant ones, including the dumbing down of political debate.
This dumbing down is practised by politicians and journalists alike.
In the 1968 U.S. presidential election the average candidate sound bite used on the TV evening news was 42 seconds. By the 2000 election, that had shrunk to about 7 seconds.
The trend was not limited to broadcast media. During the same period the average quote from a candidate appearing on the front page of the New York Times went from 14 lines to about 6.
We now do politics as if it was a skills test on a reality show: Your task is to set out how you will sort out Irish healthcare in 30 seconds… explain the rational for the UK remaining the EU in 140 characters.
Couple this rush to simplification with the urge for immediate commentary and analysis and you have a dangerous mix. In the days before social media, talk radio and rolling 24-hour news, politicians and journalists alike had the time to consider their responses and the space to expand on them.
Political analysis and political responses are now expected be immediate, hurried and brief. But what is the virtue of the immediate short response, be it in a radio interview or online?
If expecting a Minister to give their immediate gut response to a particular issue is now the norm, then how can we slam others for doing the same online, when they do it under their own name?