Recent gasp-inducing acts perpetrated by Tory politicians have brought that “profession” to a new low, not least Johnson & Sunak, and the perpetually smirking Patel. But what is happening in British politics? How is it that deeds which only a few years ago would have meant instant resignation now have no consequences at all? When did politicians realise that they didn’t have even to pretend to be sorry, they just had to ignore some brief, inconvenient hassle on social media and the telly? Because that is the scariest thing about the way politics is going – you don’t even have to pretend any more. You just carry on as if nothing had happened.
In her ground-breaking, insightful, but frightening book The Cyber Effect, Dr Mary Aiken described a phenomenon she called cyber-migration, in which behaviour in the digital world – the internet essentially, in all its forms – migrates into the real world. One of the most concerning aspects of recently changing human behaviour is how, through the internet’s anonymity and a general lack of consequences, it acts to reduce the effect of shame. We are seeing this exact effect now in the British political system. MPs have the impression that not much matters any more when it comes to standards of behaviour. They can do what they like, invent any old excuse, mouth it on the telly, then carry on as if nothing had happened. We see this par excellence with Johnson, who anyway never bothered about bringing coherence to his excuses.
The overpowering Western emphasis on the individual is also being amplified by the internet. Shame is the emotion conveying knowledge of ethical wrong and ostracising, which is to say it works in human communities, small ones especially, but also on a larger scale. Shame however is notably absent on the internet. So when people gasp and say of Johnson & Sunak, “Do they have no shame?” the answer is no, their shame has been diminished by the social and cultural environment they live in. Alas, I suspect those two clowns are the thin end of the wedge.
These are profoundly dangerous times. If the social norms of the internet migrate into politics they will migrate into war. What then?