Defriended by politics’ new tribes

Unholy rows on social media have destroyed the broad church of consensus, says Joy Lo Dico

a caveman using a mobile phone

It is difficult to know who one can break bread with these days without getting into a blazing row. A liberal feminist raised in the 80s might be struggling with their woke XR friend, a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative rebelling against her Brexiteer husband, the Labour supporter appalled by the Corbynista neighbours. There are a range of issues that have created the fissures in our society and friends: Brexit, trans issues, anti-Semitism and Black Lives Matter, lockdowns and vaccines, the environment, Meghan vs Kate. Even Trump – there were a fair few covert supporters of him.

Without wanting to sound too like a Brexiteer, we always look back to see simpler times, when there were broad categories of left and right in economic terms, conservative and liberal socially. Most of us would have said there was a place we belonged in that spectrum – that we were of a tribe of people.

But the issues above have broken down many of our ideas of who is in our camp, or who we’d invite in.

There are already noticeable decampments taking place. Suzanne Moore, once one of the goddesses of the Guardian, is now ostracised and writes for the website Unherd, often contrarian and leaning right. Peter Oborne, formerly of The Spectator launched an assault on the media serving the Johnson fake news agenda – including his former employers – and hasn’t written for them since.

Individually, we are more likely than ever to be politically non-aligned. And were a pollster to ask us our views on social issues, the graphs would be head-spinning. What happened to us?

The answer was easy. “For many decades it was all about class,” says Joe Twyman of Delta Poll. Labour and Conservative captured each side of the coin for much of the 20th century, running through families and towns. But the disruption now started fifty years ago, Tywman argues. The dividing line of class “became untrue in the 1970s and accelerated.”

“The people who are working class have changed. We are all middle class now in a sense.”

That gradual shift meant voters were poached. Margaret Thatcher did so effectively when she spotted there was an aspirational Conservative voter in “Essex Man”, hitherto a hereditary Labour voter.

Under Blair, Islington became a parody of itself as the professional classes worshipped him. But that went further. “You often find Labour has larger support among the ABC1s,” notes Twyman.

As those lines broke down, so arrived another force, that of social media. The broad churches of liberal or conservatives had suited the broad sheets of the newspapers. New granular issues were well-suited to the online media and to agile start-ups looking to exploit pockets of opinion.

In 2009 Eli Pariser brought out his book The Filter Bubble which demonstrated how algorithms had changed how we perceived news when online. The internet was reading us and, in return, we were being served only the news that we wanted to hear. Google News was tailoring what we saw to our own biases. News publishers could use this to hone in on an issue, get “eyeballs” and ramp it up to boost their own income streams.

It could be relatively benign such as picking up your interest in frocks at the Oscars. It could also be something divisive – such as trans issues.

Smaller media outlets like the Corbyn supporting website The Canary, or the pro-Trumpist Youtube channel One America News Network, would pad out their bank balances as they whipped up a divided audience. There was a good business to be had in finding those single issues.

But you could go further: you could find non-obvious issues. The social profiling techniques used by Cambridge Analytica and similar companies were trying to find the views that had been submerged.

It was most successful in the Brexit and the Trump votes of 2016, which revealed the simmering issues about the “left behinds” – those who felt the world moving away from them, from the internet, the knowledge economy and globalisation strangling localism.

In the UK, the Brexit division was seismic. And, as Twyman points out, it picked up a spectrum of issues. “It is a lot more than simply about economics – it is political, social, economic and spiritual – “we are not a Christian country anymore.”

Brexit shook both left and right as their traditional voters headed in opposite directions. It also shook up the class argument. While the north voted for Brexit, so too did the relatively well-off South West.

Once free of those historical shackles, once misaligned with your own political party, where next?

Although it seems like soap opera, the battle Kate vs Meghan has also been equally divisive and whipped up by the media. The two women became ciphers respectively for the conservatism of the royal family against the “woke” culture.

You’d smoke out a friend who’d always described themselves as liberal and suspicious of monarchy, but when confronted with the request to believe the Royal family was racist, would hesitate.

Tribes have not disappeared – they’ve become focussed on adopting us to their causes, to weaponise them. As social media asked us to tag our tastes, our likes and dislikes in tweets, we’ve fed the machines that tell us not our similarities, but our differences.

On trans issues, it is more difficult to get a real sense of the divide because it doesn’t travel far beyond those who’ve taken up either side of the cause. “Trans rights aren’t an issue for the majority of people, but those who do create a lot of noise,” says Twyman. “You can confuse noise for volume.”

Again though, typical definitions go out of the window. There are sotto voce conversations between women who’d fought for feminism, who now worry about children having gender-changing operations. And the woke, who’ve cast people like JK Rowling into the social hinterland, and find the intolerance of the “liberals” to their needs incomprehensible.

You could also see elements of the trans debate as a new version of the abortion debate: an anxiety about the “violation” of the body through surgery. But the groups defending either side have shifted: the trans lobby argue it is their body, therefore their right; the feminists view the cis-woman’s body as sacred in itself.

Lockdown and the vaccines have also thrown up oddities. I saw a lawyer I knew, a stickler for rectitude, refusing to wear a mask on public transport recently. Whereas people who say they hate the state have donned their mask and soaked up the Government’s furlough payments without complaint. The vaccine: yoga teachers will advise you to meditate but not medicate.

The rights of the individual are pitched against those of the community. And who knew your grandmother would turn into a radical libertarian refusenik in old age when offered the vaccine?

The analogies we use aren’t entirely accidental. Recent politics, particularly under Blair, spoke of a broad church as the way society could muddle along. You could find a fair few agnostics in the congregation waving mildly controversial ideas through, just for the sake of a quiet life.

But the terminology of “tribes” makes one think of early European history, one of constant domination of territories. By pitching political and social arguments at their most vicious – if under attack, you attack back – it becomes a matter of survival. The new territory has been created by social media and the internet.

The common feature of these wedge issues is the absolutism in each side’s stance. Those who didn’t take a view on Brexit are a rare thing (and also often honest – a few people I know said they didn’t vote because they didn’t understand the issues). Brexit is drawing a line on a map. On trans issues, the terfs are being told to open up their turf, the women’s changing rooms and toilets. On lockdowns, the empty streets of London have been claimed by those who believe they should be full.

Meghan has been effectively banished.

Tribes have not disappeared – they’ve become focussed on adopting us to their causes, to weaponise them. As social media asked us to tag our tastes, our likes and dislikes in tweets, we’ve fed the machines that tell us not our similarities, but our differences.

And it is the broad church that has suffered, the one that made Suzanne Moore as at home in the Guardian as the Mail on Sunday. Or Boris Johnson a popular Mayor of London. Now he dare not set foot anywhere south of Watford.

However wary we may be now of those who don’t hold our own views, there is a greater danger than handing them a victory. It is that we atomise so far that we cannot look them in the eye, let alone break bread with them.

Joy Lo Dico is a columnist for the Financial Times and owner of Voltaire’s Wood, a 120 acre wood in Gloucestershire that she bought in 2015 in a moment of madness. It was the best decision she ever made


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