Standards in public discourse have deteriorated. I hope that is something on which we can all agree. Jeremy Corbyn came to the Labour leadership promising a kinder and more respectful politics – but that’s not happened. Of course, it was not really in his gift. Nor was he ever likely to control his more radical supporters, let alone political foes.

But the deterioration has permeated all levels of discussion, especially (though not exclusively) online. Most of the time, I simply don’t bother with cyber-slanging matches anymore. You need the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon to come out unscathed (especially it comes to blood pressure). But I’ve noticed it taking place in some of the most distressing ways amongst people who profess Christian faith – especially in recent ecclesiastical debates over gender, identity and sexuality. Vitriol is not too strong a word for it, especially (though again not exclusively) against those who take a more traditional approach to things.

So I’m starting a little occasional series of thoughts – tentative steps towards civility, for want of a better title. They will come as they occur, rather than in any particular order.

The first concerns LABELS.

1. Rallying the choir

It seems such an instinctive resort. It provides a rallying point for supporters, an easy means of dismissal and denigration. So for example, imagine that Beth or Bob make statement Q (perhaps in passing, never in context). Opposition then heaves itself into haunches and attacks, with the all force of a megaton viral tweet.

  • We hate X’s, do we?
  • Beth/Bob’s statement incontrovertibly proves she/he IS an X.
  • We hate Beth/Bob.
  • Beth/Bob should be deplatformed/virally humiliated/hung, drawn & quartered/castrated or at least, Gloucester-like, let someone “hang [them] instantly, pluck out [their] eyes.”
  • The End. Sorted.

2. The Identity Irony

What irony, then, that in an age of identity obsession (the last universal concern of western politics it seems), we bandy about identity labels with such abandon. But in the end, it really is just a power game. It is a different matter, of course, if a person is happy to accept a particular label. I have something slightly different in mind – the use of pejorative labels.

As I see it, the rot sets in as soon as we make the shift from ADJECTIVES to NOUNS. This is what I wrote in A Wilderness of Mirrors a couple of years ago.

A term that legitimately describes someone’s action or view can then become an identity by which to encapsulate and thus reject the person. Thus, a liberal or conservative perspective turns the person into “a liberal” or “a conservative.” A disloyal statement means someone is “a traitor”; a sexist remark makes someone “a sexist.” Ironically, this is a matter of the powerful exploiting the hermeneutic of suspicion in order to control the weak. Such is human ingenuity that the same tools for exposing abuse of power can be twisted to reinforce the abuse. In the end, as Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton write, “Labelling attempts to dehumanize critics so that dismissing them or their opinions becomes much easier.” (p176)

3. The first step

So here’s my first step towards civility:

If you must use labels, restrict their use to ideas or actions ONLY; never use of a person.

After all, a human being can NEVER be reduced in totality to any one word anyway – let alone an (apparently) objectionable political position.

Doing this is actually harder than you think. It entails thinking before you speak. But then, that is entirely the point…

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