Why has our public debate become so bad tempered? It’s time to put anger in the ******* bin

Picture by Reidy68

Carwyn Tywyn

A few days ago, I was about to quit another aimless social media scrolling session, when the following BBC graphic caught my eye. It was the fourth and final question from an audience member, Sally, on the Question Time edition of May 30th:

“Why is everyone, so angry, about everything, all of the time?”

As if to underline the audience member’s point, ten of the first fourteen comments in response to the Twitter graphic were predictably sneering in their response to the number of commas in Sally’s question.

The other four comments spouted ritual clichés about “the so-called ruling classes”; “BBC political programming”; “no real democracy” and “BBC Question Time itself”. It is only at the fifteenth comment (by @WhoTanYouTan) where we got a flippant yet plausible answer to the question:

“We all come into this world wailing and shouting. I think it all starts with that.”

I also found myself agreeing with the seventeenth comment in the thread, by @mitchellhunt89 of the West Midlands, who stated that this is “one of the best questions… from the audience for a long time.”

It is coming on for ten years since I last ventured to write an article or opinion piece. I used to have plenty to say, and very confidently too, in previous professional capacities.

However, my involvement in Welsh politics has waned, partly due to a creeping anxiety about being judged by friends and peers: “Am I being Welsh enough?” “Am I being nationalist enough?” “Is my opinion relevant?” A latent by-product of having an early upbringing in Leicestershire, and concerns around “fitting in”.

Of course, most anxieties and phobias contain elements of irrational or disproportionate thinking, and of that, I am guilty as charged. I have, however, reached a considered view that Welsh culture and society does indeed come with a hefty dollop of judgemental thinking. I suspect this is a hangover from the heyday of nonconformist religion in Wales.

Whether my view is factually correct or not, there is no question that judgment and indeed anger are increasingly significant drivers in our public discourse.

Cleavages

I was prompted to write this piece as a result of two recent episodes on Twitter, into which I briefly dipped my toes before quickly taking them out again. In the first discussion, I intervened when an erudite (and ostensibly Christian) friend of mine agreed with an assertion made by someone else, that Tiger Woods was a “mochyn o ddyn” (pig of a man).

As someone who is associated with Ystafell Fyw Caerdydd / Living Room Cardiff, a charity that promotes personal recovery, my response had been to tentatively applaud the steps that Tiger has evidently made in his own recovery to date.

The second episode involves the recent European Election results. On the morning after the results, I spotted the following pearl of wisdom on Twitter:

“19,000 people in Carmarthenshire can get in the f*****g bin voting for that rubber-faced thunder c**t Farage. Disgraceful.”

Granted, this tweet is at the extreme end of the spectrum. However, it is far from being the only expression of anger directed by the Welsh nationalist Twitterati towards their own citizens. I tried to point out that many of those 19,000 Brexit Party voters may be ex-miners, or on Disability Living Allowance, or food bank recipients. On another day, depending on context, they may have chosen to vote for Adam Price or Helen Mary Jones of Plaid Cymru.

More importantly, they are mums, dads, and grandparents. They may have children or grandchildren at Welsh medium schools, competing at the Urdd Eisteddfod. Brexit Party voters probably included parents of my own children’s friends in Burry Port.

These days, Carmarthenshire, like the rest of Wales and like life itself, is complex. Our discourse as a Welsh national movement needs to reflect and respect that fact.

In 1967, Seymour Lipset and Stein Rokkan published their classic work Party systems and voter alignments: cross-national perspectives, which identified key cleavages around which party politics was aligned. If we were to revisit Lipset and Rokkan’s model in the Wales of 2019, I would point to four main political cleavages

  • Economic inequality: “haves” versus “have-nots”.
  • Brexit: “Leave” versus “Remain”.
  • The climate change tipping-point: “action” versus “inaction”.
  • The Break-up of the UK: “IndyWales” versus “EnglandAndWales”.

To these four political cleavages, I would add a fifth, discursive cleavage: “tolerant” versus “intolerant”. Namely, that the rising anger and intolerance evident in general public debate – regardless of which side one takes on any given issue – is every bit as serious as the four tangible issues that I have listed above, as the tone of debate frames the context in which decisions are made.

Sally from Question Time audience was correct both in her question and in her liberal punctuation. We seriously need to question why is everyone, so angry, about everything, all of the time.

Dr. Carwyn Tywyn currently works as a caseworker for a UK disability charity, and also performs across Wales as a folk harpist.

Previously, Carwyn studied at the Welsh Governance Centre under the supervision of the Centre’s founder, the late Barry Jones. He was Political Correspondent for Golwg magazine from 2006-07. He is the co-author of Placing the Nation: Aberystwyth and the Reproduction of Nationalism (2008) (With Prof. Rhys Jones).

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