This Special Issue of
Heeding the above aims, this Special Issue explores uncivility as a continuum of evolving communicative practices which extend across the entire political spectrum. We do not treat uncivility as a strictly pre-defined mode of social and political behaviour specific to certain groups (e.g., extremists) or as located strictly at the specific poles of the sociopolitical and ideological spectrum. We also see the exploration of phenomena related to articulation and communication of uncivility as the crucial factor in understanding the current upsurge and trajectories of racism and right-wing populism in the Nordic Countries and wider Europe – all covered by our contributions – but also no different to further contexts such as the US, Latin America, and Australasia (Moffitt, 2016; Mondon, 2013; Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2012; Wodak & Krzyżanowski, 2017). We particularly target the ongoing radicalisation of extreme and non-extreme modes of political action (e.g., via growing number of radical groups), but we also, as indicated above, explore the normalisation of the politics of exclusion in and by the political mainstream along with its endorsement of nationalism, racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, or Euroscepticism. We view the above processes as interconnected through various interactions and communicative practices within and beyond the on- and offline public spheres as well as in the traditional political realm and organisations satellite to politics.
Contributions to this Special Issue address a variety of interactive and communicative practices of in- and uncivility. The collection comprises articles dealing with the analysis of uncivility in online/social media, traditional media, and other genres and channels of political communication – across both mainstream and non-mainstream, or alternative, spaces of articulation, mediation, and communication. The contributions draw on interdisciplinary approaches to concepts and models related to uncivility (including, e.g., civility & incivility, civic norms, normativity, politics & morality, racism & exclusion, and populism) against the background of systematic and empirical, nationally specific, and comparative examples of analysing uncivility in specific mediated and wider communicative practices.
Scholarly reflection on the notions of civility – and, per se, also un- and incivility – are not new, and many of the vital sociological classics have long been exploring the theoretical and conceptual, but also empirical, disparity existing between the two notions and the various trajectories of civil and uncivil political formation, organisation, and behaviour (see especially Elias, 1994; Shils, 1991, 1997). Particularly such notorious developments of the twentieth century as the rise of fascism and Nazism but also later, inter alia, McCarthyism in the US (Warner, 1966) – along with many other tragic occurrences across the globe in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – have all caused renewed scholarly interest in the civility–uncivility conundrum. The key question raised in this context was probably that about the apparently recurrent slide from civil ideas to uncivil politics which appeared in various contexts and at different moments of history (Finchelstein, 2017). The additional issue here has also been how and why – despite the widely praised pronouncement of adherence to liberal and civil values in modern societies – such slides were recurrently afforded by the “normalising transgression” (Kallis, 2020) enacted around different ideological projects by various social and political actors.
There are two tendencies – probably best defined as a broader and a narrower one – which appeared to be recurrent in the ways that civility and uncivility have been conceptualised and approached. The first broader conception, in most cases used earlier, has (at least originally) perceived wider politics and any form of political action – and their communication – as necessarily founded on ideas and virtues of civility. The second narrower, and somewhat later, conception perceives just one strand or area of public discourse as civil (and its counterpart as, necessarily, uncivil). In other words, according to Harcourt (2012: 349):
[In the first case,] civility meant the internal ordering of a
[In the first case,] civility meant the internal ordering of a
While the two tendencies of looking at civility – and, per se, also uncivility – have often been combined, significantly different trajectories of their exploration have become evident in recent years giving rise to, respectively, a US-American tradition of research on
The first trend emerged in the US-based and predominantly US-oriented research in the 1990s and 2000s, mainly as a way of describing the then apparently new traits of political behaviour characterised, as many authors argued, by the ongoing decline of political correctness (Wilson, 1995) and the growing opposition, polarisation, and adversariness in public debates (Mason, 2018). These, it was often claimed, resulted in the advent of more general adversarial political and social attitudes and forms of behaviour which eventually started to have growing impact on voting preferences (Brooks & Geer, 2007). But, most importantly, they resulted in a more long-term political-cultural change wherein disagreements – often seen as inherent to the political process – came to be gradually replaced with the open “politics and communication of conflict” (Sydnor, 2019) that progressively made incivility or negativity into major traits of political and public discourse. Interestingly, scholars such as Soroka (2014) have shown in this context that incivility tends to be path-dependent in nature and that it often – indeed recurrently – comes into being in discourses on very specific political or economic issues.
However, a bulk of research on incivility initially still tended to assess it in a rather strictly normative manner, that is, as a set of violated norms seen vis-à-vis their “positive” counterpart of civility (Mutz, 2015). Hence, scholars mainly looked at why and how civility's key features – including “arguing, listening and the respect for the deliberative process” (Herbst, 2010: 13) – have come to be increasingly neglected, and why violating rather than obeying them started to bring more attention and often guaranteed political success. In this vein, many scholars also explored what exactly makes incivility a distinctive, new feature of public and political discourse – with some analyses arguing for the growth of impoliteness as the key indicator of uncivil behaviour (Theocharis et al., 2016) and others defining incivility from the point of view of its calls for various types of exclusion and intolerance (Rossini, 2019, 2020).
Some scholars – such as, very notably, Masullo Chen (2017) – pointed to the fact that such narrower conceptualising of (in)civility may be insufficient, and instead, a much more pronounced micro–macro take (see above) would be necessary to understand how narrower dynamics are related to wider factors underlying the growth of incivility in contemporary political and public life. Hence, calls were made to link specific instances and loci of discursive or interactive adversarial behaviour and related types of uncivil language to the exploration of a wider context showing why “our society seems to have lost its sense of civility” (Masullo Chen, 2017: 8). Particularly, appeals were made to put uncivil language in the complex context of “outrage politics” and “outrage industry” (Sobieraj & Berry, 2011; Berry & Sobieraj, 2014) that developed in recent years on the back of growing offline – and, in particular, online – “mediation opportunity structures” (Cammaerts, 2012; Ekman, 2018; Uldam, 2013) for nationalism, nativism, and wider populism. All of these culminated in the American context with the 2016 election of Donald Trump as the US president (yet with many other significant events marking a similar change across the globe). Only with such a micro–macro look one would be able to see that “concerns we have in today's politics – our concern about a coarsening of political language, a demonization of one's opponents, or refusal to engage with opposing points of view – are only a small piece of the problem” (Boatright, 2019: 3).
The second trend of the European research on uncivility has developed somewhat parallel to the above American scholarship yet has, quite interestingly, taken a somewhat converse route. It started from the more macro-level considerations of civility and uncivility before only later looking at specific types of uncivil discourses and practices as those characterising contemporary forms of political participation, mobilisation, and wider political – or sometimes even post-political – action.
The recent European scholarship has certainly been spawned by the scholarship on so-called
To date, the works above has been among the key inspirations for more recent scholarship which, to some extent, brings together a wider European focus on uncivility – as a description of trends in political mobilisation – with the more US-specific focus on incivility – as a description of discursive-political behaviour. The vital work linking those trends in an empirically oriented fashion has been the study by Krzyżanowski and Ledin (2017), which looked at how the online uncivil society discourse effectively normalises strong – including racist – discriminatory views against immigration. In their study, Krzyżanowski and Ledin introduced the widely followed concept of
While the research described above considers uncivil society and the radicalised strands of the on- and offline public sphere as a loci of uncivil and racist discourse in the wider context of right-wing populism, recent European scholarship has also been preoccupied with the wider uncivility and racism connection expressly within the context of the
By the same token, scholars have also continued to show that uncivility and racism might persist to connect within the discourses that traditionally have been used as vehicles for their normalisation and appropriation. Titley (2019, 2020a, 2020b) has, for example, shown in his works that “free speech” continues to be one such central shell for the uncivility–racism combination and that its seemingly value-neutral role is indeed often desired in the radical- and far-right use of the concept, helping in denying accusations of racism and radicalism. Similarly, Cammaerts (2020) has argued how the connection which is central here persists across arguments on religion, nativism, (white) supremacy, and in conspiracy theories – all considered by the author as the “nodal points” of neo-fascism hugely propelled by the current wave of radical-right and right-wing populism across the globe.
Many of the key traits and voices in the research and scholarship described above echo very clearly across the contributions to our Special Issue. This is not only through the fact that our contributors address the focal uncivility–racism–populism connection as such in different formats – and do so while recognising its differentiated, context-specific character in different national contexts and beyond. They also look across different spaces, discourses, and genres of communication in which the said connection is enacted and discursively articulated, whilst effectively solidifying and normalising extreme- and far-right thinking as part and parcel of right-wing populist politics and far-right ideologies. Hence, while our collection links many of the currents and trends in contemporary research, it also wishes to develop them further, while also explicating discourse and tendencies in the Nordic countries and indeed, the wider Europe.
Opening the Special Issue – as well as a set of articles devoted specifically to the in/un-civility–racism–populism connections in the Nordic countries – Tina Askanius provides an excellent case study of the media narratives of the neo-Nazi organisation Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) and situates this particular movement within the broader landscape of violent extremism in Sweden today. In her article, “‘I just want to be the friendly face of national socialism’: The turn to civility in the cultural expressions of neo-Nazism in Sweden”, Askanius draws on a qualitative content analysis informed by narrative inquiry, and examines various cultural expressions of neo-Nazi ideology in NRM's extensive repertoire of online media. The study brings to centre stage the role of popular culture and entertainment in the construction of a meaningful narrative of community and belonging built around neo-Nazism in Sweden today. The analysis demonstrates how NRM, with their efforts to boost the culture and entertainment end of their media repertoire, seeks to add to the ordinariness of neo-Nazi discourse by effectively normalising it through banalisation and defusing its underlying ideologies. Further, the analysis of the convergence between different genres, styles, and content into new borderline discourses illustrates how contemporary extreme-right movements complicate the traditional binaries with which scholars operate, such as fascist–liberal, totalitarian–democratic, and mainstream–extremist. Askanius hence turns to the cultural expressions of neo-Nazi propaganda in order to understand how NRM seeks to construct palpable and distinctly Nordic narratives around national socialism suitable for contemporary audiences. She argues that this surge in cultural content – and with it a shift towards “softer” aesthetics, form, and style – is part of a broader project of normalisation at the heart of NRM's media strategies and those of contemporary far-right populist parties and ultranationalist movements more generally.
In their following article, “Recontextualising the news: How antisemitic discourses are constructed in extreme far-right alternative media”, Birgitte Haanshus and Karolina Ihlbæk explore how extreme far-right alternative media sites use content from professional mainstream media to convey uncivil news with an antisemitic message. The article covers the vital aspect of normalisation processes – that is, it not only looks at the usual vectors of mainstreaming extreme discourses and positions
In the following article within the Nordic contexts, “Who are you, the people? Constructing the people in
Closing the set of articles devoted to the Nordic countries, Mattias Ekman and Michał Krzyżanowski undertake a critical discourse analysis of Swedish quality newspaper editorials. In their article, “A populist turn? News editorials and the recent discursive shift on immigration in Sweden”, Ekman and Krzyżanowski focus on the evolving framing of immigration since the recent European “refugee crisis”. Positioned within the ongoing discursive shifts in the Swedish public sphere and the growth of discursive uncivility in its mainstream arenas, the analysis highlights how xenophobic and racist discourses once propagated by the far- and radical-right gradually penetrate into the studied broadsheet media. Ekman and Krzyżanowski argue that both the examined editorials and the genre more widely have the tendency to normalise the once radical perceptions of immigration. This takes place by incorporating various discursive strategies embedded in wider argumentative frames of demographic consequences, Islam and Islamisation, or threat and integration. All of these enable the construction of claims against immigration, now apparently prevalent also in the examined strands of the Swedish “quality” press. As the analysis shows, by incorporating both micro and macro discursive elements associated with the far and populist right, the mainstream discourse of editorials normalises and legitimises them. This opens up increased manoeuvring room for far-right political actors, and for far-right politics at large, all of which thus become a prominent and legitimate voice. Ekman and Krzyżanowski show how this process pushes the boundaries of publicly acceptable language and ultimately defines Swedish public discourse on immigration within both the political and wider public spheres.
Opening the next set of articles addressing international cases – which allow the further consideration of the above Nordic examples in a wider, comparative pan-European perspective – is Per-Erik Nilsson, in “‘The new extreme right’: Uncivility, irony, and displacement in the French ‘re-information sphere’”. Departing from the premise that contemporary France is a prolific arena for post-fascist actors, parties, and movements, Nilsson highlights that self-proclaimed alternative news forums and publishing houses serve as forums for information and mobilisation, through various strategies, to resist an alleged onslaught by the enemies of the nation and its people: multiculturalism, feminism, political correctness, political corruption, and civilisational decay. In his article, Nilsson explores uncivility as a discursive logic within the French post-fascist media-ecology, with a focus on conspicuous usage of irony and discursive displacement. More specifically, Nilsson discusses how sardonic irony is employed as an uncivil discursive strategy to navigate the legal boundaries of free speech and how discursive displacement, coupled with irony, is used as an affective identificatory technique in post-fascist discourse. Concluding his study, Nilsson makes a vital call for not using uncivility and civility as normative analytical categories, but focusing instead on their emic usage in post-fascist social and political communication – online and offline. This is arguably the key to understanding how contemporary post-fascist discourse – in France as elsewhere – slips into the realm of liberal-democratic discourse and presents itself as a viable alternative among all the others in the political marketplace.
In the following article “Unpacking uncivil society: Incivility and intolerance in the 2018 Irish abortion referendum discussions on Twitter”, Dayei Oh, Suzanne Elayan, Martin Sykora, and John Downey contend that in the era of rising populist sentiment, deep social and political polarisations, and a growing crisis of online harms, numerous scholars share concern about the impact of such uncivil populist forces on the health of liberal democracy. Oh and her colleagues argue, however, that one should first normatively distinguish between incivility and intolerance – as indeed has already been proposed in the in- and uncivility scholarship (see above) – as, the authors contend, the core problem of uncivil society is intolerance rather than incivility. To this aim, Oh and colleagues empirically analyse incivility and intolerance during the 2018 Irish abortion referendum and the related discussions on Twitter. They conduct a content analysis and qualitative textual analysis of 3,000 tweets posted between April and June 2018. The results show that despite selecting a highly emotive and polarised issue, incivility and intolerance do not dominate the Twittersphere. Furthermore, the gender and political position of users were found to be associated with use of incivility and intolerance, which also visibly increased as the referendum approached.
Last but certainly not least, in an article that provides a take on the supranational EU level, “The institutionalisation of populist political discourse and conservative uncivil society in the Europeran Union: From the margins to the mainstream?”, Carlo Ruzza – one of the pioneers of research on uncivil society in Europe – analyses populist political discourse in European conservative uncivil society. Ruzza examines the ideational features of conservative civil society groups at the EU level and compares them to those of progressive groups. Through a frame analysis of the textual materials of these two types of organisations, Ruzza examines the reactions to the success of populist formations in several European member states as well as at the EU level. He shows the contrasts between progressive and conservative association discourses on key concepts, such as EU-regulated anti-discrimination policies, views on EU fundamental rights, and the overarching functions of civil society, its composition, and mechanisms of legitimation. In the analysis, Ruzza argues that the long-established EU ethos of fostering progressive civil society is undergoing a redefinition, which impacts EU strategies. He posits that in a changing political climate, EU institutions are less interested in some of the contributions progressive civil society offers, such as contributions to public deliberation, governance, and the legitimacy of the EU. Progressive civil society thus reacts to the threat of a loss of standing and attempts to retain its historical centrality, legitimacy, and access; in contrast, conservative civil society groups seek to establish themselves in a political environment that was previously off-limits to them. Ruzza contends that the best way to frame the contrast between rival images of civil society is through a movement–counter-movement dynamic. Therein, populist discourses and views compete with and contrast inclusionary anti-discrimination non-populist ones. Ruzza argues that political and discursive competition between these two camps characterises the current state of the field of civil society.