Toxicity of debate: Marginalisation and Divisiveness

Tuesday 14th May 2019 12:04 EDT

On Thursday 9 May, members of the House of Lords debated the conduct and toxicity of debate in public life, the divisions in society which result from such debates, and called for the government to take necessary steps to address such divisions.

The debate was proposed by Lord Harris of Haringey (Labour), former director of the Association of London Government. The debate was attended by members across the political spectrum including- Baroness Prashar (Crossbench), Lord Bhikhu Parekh (Labour) Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone (Conservative), Baroness Hussein-Ece (Liberal Democrat), Bishop of Leeds (Bishops), Lord Puttnam (Labour) among others.

Addressing the role of 'social media' in the current Brexit charged political atmosphere of the UK, Lord Parekh, discussed about the subjects of “politics of identity” and “politics of marginality”.

“If somebody were to ask, “What is our biggest problem?” in the aftermath of the financial crisis, in any western society the response would immediately be inequality. A large number of people have found their incomes frozen and are unable to see any rise,” he said.

“National identity or nationalism is the battleground, the site on which our differences are played out. National identity is ultimately about who we are, where we belong and what our place in this world is. Ultimately, with those questions Europe becomes extremely important—the Europe that we joined reluctantly and that we have been a part of all these years, yet from which we want to withdraw,” he continued.

The Brexit divide has probably been the greatest in the last few weeks with both Tories and Labour losing foothold in crucial constituencies in the recently conducted local elections. Not only has the Brexit ripple effect led to major gains for the Green Party and Liberal Democrats but also given voice to far-right campaigners like Nigel Farrage. Such toxicity has led to the murder of Jo Cox in the run up to the European referendum, since when politics has – if anything – become even more fractured. Threats to MPs have rocketed with 142 offences recorded in 2017, rising to 270 last year. MPs’ homes and offices are attacked and their constituency staff intimidated. Evidence received by the Committee on Standards in Public Life stated that- “The tone of modern political discourse permeates through society and normalises abusive and … aggressive language.” This need for open debate and regulatory behaviour in public was further highlighted by Baroness Usha Prashar.

“Healthy, open debate is thwarted by intolerance and lack of respect for differing views. The tone of bitterness and aggression that has entered our public debate is very worrying. The scale and intensity of intimidation shaping our public life is a matter of serious concern.

“One area of great concern that has already been mentioned is social media. It has become a fertile ground for attacking those in public life, especially women and the LGBT and BAME communities,”said Baroness Prashar.

She recently became a chairman of Cumberland Lodge, an educational charity set up 71 years ago by Amy Buller, author of 'Darkness Over Germany'.

The organisation as a laboratory that teaches children how to disagree well and how to develop critical thinking, and such initiatives need to be scaled up, along with efforts to promote digital literacy,” concluded Baroness Prashar.

For the full report of the debate visit:

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