Words matter. When you publicly castigate your critics as traitors, “enemies of the people” to be “locked up”, or “saboteurs” to be “crushed”, then you set the tone of political debate. When you are in public office, you are naturally held to a higher standard than the average troll on Twitter. You have a responsibility to the public and a duty to your office to behave with dignity and civility.
At least, that’s the theory. Many politicians today, perhaps taking cues from the electoral success of Donald Trump in the United States, seem to believe the rules have changed. For them, “dignity” means weakness (because the best political strategy is: attack, attack, attack) and “civility” means behaving like elites. They argue that their robust language reflects genuine public anger at the political class, and that straight-talking equals authenticity (even if a few feathers get ruffled along the way). And, if all else fails, they can blame the media for taking their quotes out of context.
But has it all gone too far? The recent letter bombing campaign in the US against high-profile Trump critics has definitely pulled this question into sharp focus. It’s also not just a debate for the US; the new President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has a long history of publicly making extremely misogynistic, homophobic, and racist comments. In Europe, critics have blamed the inflammatory language of Interior Minister Matteo Salvini for a surge in racially-motivated attacks.
Does aggressive political rhetoric lead to violence? Or is it just part of the rough-and-tumble of democracy? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!