On the moralising of politics

The tendency in debate to use implicit or explicit moral condemnation of one’s opponent has moved from those who were on the Right to those who affiliate with what was the Liberal-Left. I will be writing more on these themes, including how we can better debate, rationality and the culture of offence, and understanding other people

Nico Macdonald
The Political Macroscope


One of the most egregious characteristics of debate in [[Modern British politics]], is treating people whose views are opposed to yours as if they are somehow morally depraved and irresponsible.

This used to be a trope of Right-wing and conservative attitudes to Left-wingers, socialists and communists. Today, it is reversed and it is former Lefties and liberals who, instead of engaging in good faith with arguments, impute bad faith or some immoral motive to someone presenting an argument they don’t like. (I use the term ‘don’t like’ deliberately, as most times their reaction is not intellectual but visceral.)

The most common forms this takes is to accuse their opponents of being self-interested, right-wing (a pejorative term today), racist, xenophobic or, more esoterically, a ‘white supremacist’ or a ‘TERF’.

But let’s take a step back to the 1980s.

As a campaigning young socialist (at 15 I was a card-carrying ‘Labour Party Young Socialist’), unilateralist (remember that?), anti-Apartheid and ‘Right to Work’ campaigner, I remember being regularly patronised by conservatives for being at best idealistic and at worst an irresponsible, immoral and unpatriotic.

Winston Churchill speaking in the House of Commons, June 4, 1940

As Winston Churchill didn’t say but was widely believed:

“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain”.

My tormentors were from the lower streams of this school.

Back to today, the Teens, and the other side of the ‘culture wars’ (in 1999 I reviewed a conference of that name for Eye magazine), the boot is on the other foot. But it is still a boot, not an eye, which takes in ideas and facilitates consideration and understanding.

Being judged for one’s views to be morally inferior or irresponsible by people, including people one knows — on EU membership and the Referendum; on Islamist violence; or on how individuals and the government should respond to a pandemic — is vexatious, in bad faith, and tends to close down public discourse. (And it doesn’t tend to win others to the side of those who pursue this model of ‘debate’.)

I wrote about this and other negative characteristics of online debate on Facebook in a [Proposal for a #Rethink on how we debate ideas]. For me, this is one of the fundamental challenges of our era. But I don’t expect I will be spared the boot.

[Originally posted on Facebook]

Related pieces

On freedom of speech and the culture of offence | by Nico Macdonald | Oct, 2020 | Medium



Nico Macdonald
The Political Macroscope

Educator, facilitator and consultant on innovation and creativity. Tutor @CIEELondon @LSBU_ACI / External Examiner @CSM_news. BIG POTATOES manifesto co-author