Are we sacrificing civility on the altar of tribalism?

By Jack Walsh, First Year Mathematics.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

Being a student is almost analogous to political activism. In general, this spreads awareness and wisdom surrounding current issues deemed to be of importance. For students and staff to accept the reality of the climate crisis, for example, is of course a necessity and nothing but praise should be awarded to those who protest. Generally speaking, being informed and opinionated is to demonstrate a set of principles and is an indicator of a strong character.

However, universities are also a prime environment for echo-chambers to develop. Students begin to believe that their opinion is the ‘correct’ opinion; hence to disagree with what is ‘correct’ is to display a profound moral and intellectual deficiency, regardless of the magnitude of a given issue or the scale of the difference in opinion. The tribalism which results from this particular train of thought is vitriolic, leading to a silencing of those who disagree with what is considered to be politically correct. 

Towards the end of Michaelmas term, I was fortunate enough to attend The Durham Union’s Debate ‘This House has No Confidence in Boris Johnson’. With the 2019 General Election imminent and a concerted effort by the Durham Students’ Union to increase student turnout in full effect, the apt topic provided an opportunity for those on the fence to listen to a reasoned debate and thus make an informed decision. Of course, the event was anything but a reasoned debate. Clearly, for some in attendance, the appearance of Toby Young was too much to bear and the debate quickly regressed to petty insults and incoherent shouting. This performance was clearly motivated by the desire to paint Toby Young as a fundamentally odious person, who had no right not only to be given a platform, but to have an opinion altogether. To believe that Toby Young should not be given an opportunity to address members of The Durham Union is an argument worth discussing, but the debate itself was intended to revolve around Boris Johnson, not the indiscretions of a man who supported his views. Such an episode is merely an anecdote of a wider trend to discredit and sully those who express differing opinions.

Tribalism has clearly been promulgated by Twitter’s inadequate platform; the ability to take sanctuary behind a laptop screen, combined with the site’s 280-character limit, allow for an over-simplification of other’s opinions. In this regard, actual conversation is stifled, and disagreements swiftly and inevitably devolve into desperate insults. While such a level of disregard has in previous years been largely confined to the digital realm, there has been a clear and noticeable trend of this percolating into everyday interactions.

The growing trend of populism has undoubtedly been a crucial factor in this. Political figures such as Jeremy Corbyn, David Lammy and Dominic Cummings have experienced a cult-like status in recent years in the UK. For many, it has become more appealing to attach themselves to an individual rather than a set of ideas. The implications of this are clear and insidious; if we support individuals rather than policies, we are often forced into defending ideas with which we may not agree. For example, a student can, in earnest, decide to vote Conservative while disagreeing with Boris Johnson’s infamous ‘letter box’ comments. 

Our views on various political topics appears to be analogous to supporting Premier League teams. As football fans know, attempting to convince a Manchester United fan to instead root for Liverpool is an exercise in futility, regardless of the logical reasoning behind it. Likewise, it is now almost impossible to suggest to a Conservative voter that they should consider voting for Labour, or vice versa. Any attempt to engage politically active voters in a conservation in which their opinion is challenged is tantamount to violence, and the exchange rarely ends in catharsis or satisfaction.

Arguably a major reason for this is the relatively binary nature of the UK political system, coinciding with the major policy differences of the two dominant political parties. Aside from the frowned upon option of spoiling your ballot, voters are forced into one tribal camp, from which they are then expected to explain the most despicable actions in this party’s history, despite the fact that one may not actually agree with them. If you vote Conservative, you become an advocate for Donald Trump; if you vote Labour, you must attempt to explain Hugo Chavez’s regime.

While it is true that one’s opinions can reveal their character, it is extremely difficult to determine the motives behind a particular belief. Clearly, there are cases in which someone’s opinion is indefensible; this is where names such as Katie Hopkins and Milo Yiannopoulos spring to mind. Regardless, for the vast majority of contested issues, it is arguably best practice to assume that people act with earnest intentions, and do not, in fact, want to watch the world burn.


Want to share your thoughts? We actively encourage discussion and debate and would love to hear your opinion! If you’d like to write a full response, or if you have any thoughts on this article that you would like to share with us, please comment below or email johns.chronicle@durham.ac.uk.

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