Stagnation lies at the heart of these bad tempered times

The lack of hope and inspiration in our daily lives is driving the current epidemic of frustration, anger and violence.

marx memorial
Vandalism on the Karl Marx memorial in Highgate Cemetery. Image courtesy of Highgate Cemetery

Question Time on BBC One has always been an imperfect measure of the nation’s mood. Everyone has their own gripes with the flagship political debate show, from the marshalling tactics of the host (previously David Dimbleby, now Fiona Bruce) to the supposed bias inherent in the panel’s composition or the general public in the audience. But for all these grievances, it’s still the best programme of its kind that we’ve got, and each edition is a little window into how people outside of our immediate circles are thinking and feeling.

The latest edition from Nottingham provided an eye-opening example of the level of rage that is now bubbling up in the population at large. Question Time is often known to get rowdy, but last week’s broadcast was noticeably bad tempered, as members of the audience shouted out, heckled and loudly booed throughout. As issues like climate change, Brexit and Donald Trump’s planned state visit to the UK were debated, vitriolic arguments frequently broke out. Among the most unseemly moments was actor John Rhys-Davies’s scream of “Oh woman!” after fellow panellist, the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, had challenged his views on Trump.

It was a snapshot of today’s rage-filled public discourse – of how incoherent anger is now the prime currency for conducting debates. How else to explain the fact that many young local councillors are quitting politics amid growing levels of abuse and threats from local constituents, as The Guardian reported this week? Or the increasingly frequent attacks on ethnic, religious and political sites and symbols, such as the repeated vandalism of the Karl Marx memorial in Highgate Cemetery.

Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence from the current local election campaign points to a particularly intemperate climate as candidates from across the political divide report being shouted at, having doors slammed in their face or being assaulted while out canvassing the public.

The ongoing chaos surrounding Brexit is often cited as the primary reason for such malevolence, and for sure no single issue has done more to sow division and stir up anger in recent years. Yet various other measures point to a wider sense of stagnation in society – a collective depression which is breeding the kind of anxiety, frustration and untrammelled rage we are now seeing in public life.

One such measure would be the report published this week by the government’s social mobility commission, which found that social mobility in the UK has been “virtually stagnant” since 2014, and that inequality in Britain is “now entrenched from birth to work”. The failure of successive governments to create a level playing field where everyone has the same chance to succeed, regardless of their class, disability, ethnicity or gender, has fostered deep resentments which have come to the fore in today’s febrile political atmosphere.

Or look too at the mounting problems around mental health, which prompted the government to appoint its first ever suicide prevention minister last year. Mental health issues are complex, but it’s clear that modern-day concerns like rising job insecurity, the decline of local high streets and communities, and the impact of social media – itself an echo chamber for rage and bad feeling – have had a detrimental impact on our collective mental health. Plenty of studies have drawn a clear link between depression and anger.

Solutions to the current rage epidemic will not just come from government – particularly when our politicians have proved to be so ineffective at healing the divisions caused by Brexit, and the deepening inequalities in society. Rather, they are more likely to come from people joining together in the name of common causes that drive change at a grassroots level.

A good example – and one which inspires real hope – is the recent Extinction Rebellion protests in London, which drew people together with the promise they could make a difference as part of an active, determined and non-violent community of people. Their cause was fighting climate change, but the model could be applied to many of the other deep-rooted problems that are stirring up so much of the rage we see today.

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