Our friends in Britain learning some bad habits from us

December 5, 2008

This Economist article points out how public discourse seems to be going sideways in Britain–like it has been going ugly here for quite a long time. Here’s a great summary:

a tabloid media that are at once sensationalist and stridently censorious; a reductively adversarial parliament; and a centralised system of government, in which the fault for almost any cock-up can be traced to the top. There is also a creeping, American-style taste for litigation. The result is a political culture dominated and warped by blame.

I’ve talked about it here before but it seems to me that there is a seething cauldron of outrage that threatens to burst out at any moment. As this article points out, it often comes out in an immediate search for perpetrators. If something isn’t the way we want it, someone has to take the fall.

I’m hoping to spend a lot more time researching and contemplating this important topic. In my mind it hints at something seriously wrong with our society–a petulance and unhappiness that is all out of proportion with the wealth, ease, comfort and freedom we enjoy. I’d welcome any of your thoughts, comments, and links to interesting statistics or commentary on this thing I am starting to refer to as “Toxic Talk.”

I’m looking for some culprits of my own. I think part of it is a self-indulgent culture, part an education system that proposes dependence on others rather than self-reliance, part of it is a loss of faith and the idea of meaning and purpose, part of it is a legal system run amuck, part of it is social media in which this toxic talk has become the defining value of an entire sub-culture, and part of it is our media in which in their desperation for audiences and the need to entertain is always looking for someone to place the black hat on. That sentence is way too long–but the point is there may be many reasons.

Share your thoughts. You may not even agree that there is something wrong with today’s public discussions.


5 Responses to “Our friends in Britain learning some bad habits from us”

  1. Ben Proctor Says:

    Hi Gerald

    Interesting post.

    I’m UK based so I have to talk from that perspective. I’m not sure I see the evidence for the Economist’s column, our tabloid and middle-market media has been strident and simplistic in its coverage for an awfully long time.

    We also have a very interventionist state but we are frequently ambivalent in our attitude towards it. We tend to be outraged when social workers take children from their parents and then outraged if they don’t and something happens to the child.

    Many in this country would argue the opposite to one of your points: that we are becoming less dependent on one another and that this is contributing to many of the perceived ills in our society. Some remember with bitterness Margaret Thatcher saying “there is no such thing as society”.

    Our political discourse does seem to be becoming much less deferential. I think it could be difficult for an American audience to believe how centralised our political system is and how deferential we have traditionally been to those in power. Moving away from that has to be positive.

    There is a tendency for the discourse to be shaped by those who shout loudly and the political agenda in our country is shaped by a very few media organisations. Social media is a potential antidote to this because it allows people to hear a diversity of voices (if they so desire). It also allows people only to hear the voices they choose to.

    But that’s freedom -right?


  2. City of Big Shoulders Says:

    I do hope you’ll do a post on the laid-off “sit-in” workers protesting at the window factory in Chicago, and the bad guy role that Bank of America’s been forced into… Will it make a difference in the grand scheme of things? Will BoA customers close their accounts and bank elsewhere because of this incident? Me thinks not…

  3. Neil Chapman Says:

    Ben is right, in that the UK media has been blaming for a long time, and that the UK political system is very centralised as well as somewhat paternalistic.
    However, one lesson the UK could learn from the US is how American media hold public officials and politicians to account with more rigour and with a much older Freedom of Information Act; 1967 in the US compared to 2000 (2005 when the general right of access came into force).

    I believe ecause the FOI has been around longer, in the US there is a greater bias by public officials towards citizens’ ‘right to know’, which does make for a healthier and more participative democracy.

  4. […] Comments Neil Chapman on Our friends in Britain learnin…City of Big Shoulder… on Our friends in Britain learnin…Ben Proctor on Our friends in Britain learnin…gbaron on Great post about Twitter as […]

  5. gbaron Says:

    Neil, interesting comment. Worthy of more discussion. My experience has been that politicians these days–particularly at a local level–pander so much to the noisy activist few that they forget a fundamental principle of democracy: represent the best interests of the most. I call it the tyranny of the few. Would love to give some real life examples. When activists can pack a city hall around a special interest and get the electeds to succumb to the pressure–in conjunction with the media who love this stuff–democracy does not always win out.

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