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This week Sophie Lecheler, Assistant Professor in Political Communication, wrote an opinion piece for CommPulse about how incivility in media and politics may influence our society. Curious?


Sophie Lecheler, Assistant Professor of Political Communication, ASCoR

Incivility is a popular topic of public discourse and many claim that politics, media and our daily lives are increasingly characterised by it. The term incivility describes rude, disrespectful, exaggerated and poisonous public talk or behaviour. Also, it has been argued that incivility has negative effects on citizens’ political and public behaviour – an argument usually backed up with stories of rude neighbours and annoying flocks of youths on urban streets. In the Netherlands, incivility is affectionately described by the terms of a verhuftering (roughly: bastardization) or verruwing (coarsening) of Dutch society.

While fears of incivility are present in other European countries, and are hotly debated in the United States, the Dutch have shown singular devotion to discussing it whenever the opportunity arises. One recent example was provided by PvdA chairman Hans Spekman. After publishing a number of ‘hate mails’ he had received on his Facebook wall, Spekman went on to publicly argue that the Internet was in dire need of a ‘civility offensive’. Incivility has grasped the Netherlands, who are consequently “under the spell of ‘verhuftering’” as Dutch philosopher Bas van Stokkom argued in his book Wat een hufter! It is thus an important social problem that not only keeps many observers of public life occupied but that also has the potential to affect future politics and policy making. However, what we are missing is academic or systematic evidence from the Netherlands (or Europe for that matter) on what effects incivility in politics and media really have on citizens and society at large.

American scholars Diana Mutz and Byron Reeves have studied the effects of incivility on citizens. They present findings that suggest that exposure to incivility on TV will cause citizens to loose trust in their government. A recent study by Bryan Gervais of the University of Maryland adds another aspect. Gervais argues that citizens will actually mimic uncivil behaviour in the news. This means that, if citizens hear either a politician or a journalist talking or behaving in an uncivil way, they might adapt this incivility into how they themselves talk about politics. While more research is needed on the extent to which this really occurs, Gervais’ work certainly provides fuel to those who are interested in the potential dangers of incivility. However, we must evaluate all US findings with care: the US media system is characterised by weak public broadcasting and strong, highly polarized, corporate media (think of the famous Fox News). This distinguishes media in the US from the situation in the Netherlands and most other European countries. Americans are likely to be exposed to much more incivility in politics and media than Dutch or other European audiences. Also, another (US) study found that incivility may in fact engage citizens to vote. This means that extreme political talk could motivate a lethargic electorate, probably because it simply renders politics more exciting. It also suggests that incivility might not always be as bad as has been feared.

Who is to blame for incivility? In the Dutch case, the rise of incivility has been connected to populism, anti-immigrant sentiments, and a ‘media logic’ of society. Similar arguments have been made in other European countries. While there is certainly no easy answer to the question of responsibility, it is possible to make an argument for several culprits: Research has found that political debate is indeed ever more branded by polemic speech and populism. Journalists really have at times been shown to use the stylistic device of exaggeration and pure negativity when talking about politics. Also, social researchers are aware of cracks in society when it comes to how kindly citizens deal with each other, and how important civil behaviour is to each and every one of us.

Goethe writes that "kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together”, and the importance or danger of the presence of incivility in our current society goes unquestioned. Nevertheless, we simply do not know to what extent it is present, where, who causes it and what its effects are.