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Conviction politics is changing morality

Political dialogue gives way to animal-like culture war.

Barnabas Aspray is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University.

A severed doll head, resembling Donald Trump, lies on dirty ground.
Max Letek on Unsplash.

“We're gathering 100 MILLION signatures to OVERTURN Trump's wrongful conviction!” 

I received this SMS message, along with a link, on Monday 10th June. It was the fourth message of its kind I’d received since the verdict convicting former US President Donald Trump of felony. This time, out of curiosity I followed the link. I found a lot of words in capital letters conveying a sense of extreme urgency, but I did not find any evidence or argument for the injustice of the verdict. 

Trump’s conviction has been met with a torrent of reactions from people across the political spectrum. Everyone sees the event as an episode in the upcoming US election in which Trump plans to run for president. For those on the left, it’s final and conclusive proof that he is unfit for office; the evidence is clear, the courts have decided, end of story. For those on the right, it’s a further sign of the depraved depths to which the Democrats will go to discredit him; the jury was rigged, and the whole thing was a political stunt to win the election. The legitimacy of the court ruling is something nobody on the left questions and nobody on the right admits. 

To me, these responses are another sign of the ever-widening gap between left and right that eats up all common ground, even the rule of law. Political victory now takes priority over truth or justice – or perhaps more accurately: victory for my side is identical with truth and justice. To concede anything to the opposing side is seen, not as praiseworthy, but as betrayal.  

My comments in what follows are nonpartisan: I want to point to what is true of both sides equally: the failure of dialogue and its replacement by a warfare mentality. This change affects even what we consider moral and admirable behaviour. It is not only a problem in the US. Ever since Brexit, things have become increasingly polarised in the UK as well. 

That is what “culture war” means. War and dialogue are opposites; war is what happens when dialogue has failed.

Formerly in Western nations, rival political parties offered different means to achieve the same end: a flourishing society of justice, peace, prosperity, and freedom. Politicians disagreed but they respected each other. They had faith in the political process in which they all participated. Consider as an example the letter George Bush Senior left Bill Clinton after losing the 1992 US election.  

“Your success now is our country’s success,” he wrote. “I am rooting hard for you. Good luck.”  

The fact that he was now president was more important than which political party he belonged to. 

In such a cohesive society, the legal system was a trusted arbitrator whose decisions would be accepted by victor and loser alike. This does not mean the system was perfect. Everyone knew that justice could sometimes miscarry. But the public did not see themselves as qualified to judge that either way. How could they expect to know more than the jury? 

What we are witnessing now is a return to a more animal-like state in which the goal is that my team wins no matter what. If the arbitrator rules in favour of my tribe, they are seen as executing justice. If they rule against my tribe, their ruling must by definition be unjust. 

That is what “culture war” means. War and dialogue are opposites; war is what happens when dialogue has failed because both sides have been unable even to “agree to disagree.” 

Reasoned debate is seen as no longer effective in light of the vile underhanded tactics of the other side (but not, of course, of my side). 

In dialogue, both sides aim to uncover the truth even if the truth turns out not to be what I wanted or thought. Prioritizing the truth means that I might realise I was wrong and concede the point, even at some material cost. For example, in a property dispute, I might become persuaded of the truth of my opponent’s case and give up my claim. That may be painful, but winning was less important than justice being done. In dialogue, both ‘sides’ are really on the same side because they both ultimately want the same thing. 

In war, on the other hand, the goal is to defeat the enemy and it makes no difference whether they are right or wrong – or rather, it is assumed without question that they are wrong. If words are used in war, they are weapons in disguise, not meaningful communications. 

This transformation from dialogue to war changes morality itself. You are now judged, not by the sincerity of your pursuit of truth, but by how loyal you are to your tribe. Even to take seriously the opposing position is viewed like reading a propaganda flyer dropped from a Nazi airplane: don’t even read it, it will only twist your mind! 

Even seven years ago, fans of Jordan Peterson were fond of the phrase “all I want is to have a reasoned debate.” Regardless of your opinion of Peterson or of whether he exemplified this, those who used this phrase revealed a desire for dialogue rather than war. But today, many of those same followers no longer say that. Now they say, “the left is out to get us and must be stopped” and their counterparts say, “the right is out to get us and must be stopped.” Reasoned debate is seen as no longer effective in light of the vile underhanded tactics of the other side (but not, of course, of my side).

What do we want from our political opponents? We want them to listen to us and to take our arguments seriously. 

What role can Christianity have in this polarised society? Sadly Christians are often seen as part of the problem rather than the solution: sold out to one political party. But we should be clear that Christianity does not sit neatly on either side of the divide. That does not mean Christians should be moderate or “centrist,” as if none of the issues matter much. Christianity comes down strongly on many things, but those are spread across the political spectrum. The way Christians vote depends on which issues they judge to be the most important or pressing in the current circumstances. 

Second, Christians are called to make peace in time of war. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they will be called children of God.” Christians are called build bridges rather than burn them, to seek common ground rather than trying to obliterate their opponents. This can start with showing love and respect for the person behind the argument; by celebrating our common humanity before trying to argue a point. 

Third, it means exemplifying the kind of attitude we want to see in our opponents. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you,” Jesus told his disciples. What do we want from our political opponents? We want them to listen to us and to take our arguments seriously. We want them to stop making cheap caricatures of us and represent us at our best. We want them to break out of their echo chambers and read news from a variety of political leanings. We want them to open themselves to persuasion and be prepared to change their minds. Jesus suggests leading by example and doing those things first.  

Fourth and finally, the Christian’s allegiance is to truth and justice above any tribe, any agenda. The real political situation is almost certainly complex, with much to be said for and against both sides. There are awkward facts that don’t fit our own political position; let’s admit them. The Christian commitment to truth means being ready to acknowledge the weaknesses, failings, and faults on our own side before we point the finger. It’s hard, I know. I am not perfect at it myself. But it’s a more Christlike moral standard to aim for than that of the culture warrior who excels at demolishing the enemy.  

Restoring dialogue won’t be easy and may come at a high personal cost. But the cost is greater if we don’t try. My own desire is to see Christians taking the lead in the restoration process and showing the world what Christlike peacemaking can accomplish. 

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10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop.