WE have a hate problem. There is more aggression and abuse in the public debate than at any time I can remember in my adult life. At the same time, it has become almost routine to accuse public figures of being “haters” on the flimsiest of evidence.

It doesn’t take a political scientist to see where, if unchecked, this could lead. How are we supposed to tackle the problems that face us as a society if politicians, journalists and voters are too afraid to discuss them?

None of this is new, of course, the Brexit debate having turned the intimidation of public figures into a black art. But several developments in recent days underline just how stubborn a problem it is.

A poll of MSPs by Holyrood magazine found that 70 per cent have feared for their safety since being elected, including nearly 90 per cent of women. Credible death threats had been received by nearly half of women and a quarter of men, and one third of women MSPs had received threats of sexual violence.

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Probably, like me, you’re not even surprised to read that. That is the really shocking part: how mundane the intimidation of public figures has become.

SNP MP Joanna Cherry revealed this week that she had reported an incident of concern to police – another one – and had beefed up security at her home as a result. Allegations of a previous threat towards her resulted in a man being charged earlier this month.

In parliament, where hate crime legislation has been up for discussion this week, MSPs from three parties have expressed their trepidation about the tone of the debate around transgender rights. Earlier this month, Adam Tomkins, the Tory MSP and justice committee convener, a professor of public law, admitted he was “alarmed and distressed, and perhaps even, if I’m honest, a little afraid” of aspects of the reaction to a now-withdrawn government amendment which sought to protect criticism of transgender self-identification as freedom of expression.

This week, Labour MSP Johann Lamont admitted to feeling “anxious” about tabling amendments to the Hate Crime Bill given the backlash other MSPs have faced.

Humza Yousaf himself, the justice secretary, acknowledged the “toxic” nature of some of the debate. He was respectful of Ms Lamont’s opinions. He then avoided answering a question from her on whether there are two or more sexes.

Going back a bit, I happen to think it’s right to rethink the freedom of expression clause to make it broader since singling out one protected characteristic carried an obvious risk of making transgender people feel more marginalised. But I can also understand the need for firm freedom of expression protections given the alacrity with which people who dip their toe into this debate are branded haters.

What is most troubling about all this is the chilling effect it has on debate.

HeraldScotland: Joanna CherryJoanna Cherry

In December, respected MSP Andy Wightman left the Scottish Greens over what he felt was their intolerant stance on this issue. Speaking afterwards, he said that key party figures had "moved to a space where sex doesn’t matter, and indeed, the minute you talk about it, you’re accused of being a bigot and a transphobe, which is, obviously, ridiculous”.

Could some of the people who believe sex matters fairly be called transphobes – “haters”, in other words? Quite possibly. Does that mean they all are? No – obviously – of course it doesn’t. It is one of the most basic functions of politicians (and journalists too) to scrutinise politicians’ stances and proposed legislation for unintended consequences and to ensure that conflicts between the rights and needs of different groups in society are balanced against one another as fairly as possible. That requires them to ask sometimes difficult questions. Accusing them of hatred for doing so is an enormous leap.

But intolerance in public life goes a lot wider than one issue. We saw it directed towards Remainer Tory MSPs as the Westminster Brexit standoff came to a crescendo in 2019, we saw critics of Jeremy Corbyn inside the Labour party, including Jewish MPs, targeted for abuse, and of course you get it in the independence debate. A blog by the pro-independence blogger Stuart Campbell, aka Wings Over Scotland, targeted fellow Herald columnist Neil Mackay this week, drawing attention to Neil’s Northern Irish background and making the dangerous and irresponsible suggestion that a recent column of his was “an exemplar of the infiltrator’s craft”. The blog prompted outright condemnation by senior SNP figures, including Mr Yousaf who described it as “very nasty indeed”.

Where does this widespread bile in the body politic come from?

We wouldn’t be here without Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media, which turn public debate into a masked gathering where individuals express themselves in a way they probably never would if they had to answer for their views face to face. Twitter in particular rewards the glib, the indignant and the sneering with likes and retweets. It’s why Piers Morgan has more than 20 times as many followers as Prof Chris Whitty.

But it’s too easy to blame Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. The tone of public debate has become more splenetic in tandem with the changing times. Cosy centrist politics were discredited by the banking crash, which exposed a system that seemed geared with government compliance to benefit an elite.

In its wake, populist politicians have mainstreamed resentment and anger, and the existing parties have turned away from the centre ground to focus on their bases, promoting the idea that politics is about winners and losers, that consensus is for wimps and that success means crushing the opposition.

Some young people have arrived at a similar conclusion out of despair at successive governments’ failure to tackle climate change, yawning economic divisions and equality issues. What has consensus politics done for us, they think (who can blame them).

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The result is a society divided into camps and interest groups and a public policy landscape which looks like a battlefield.

But you can’t make good laws without respectful, open, unimpeded debate. And you can’t have unimpeded debate if people fear asking questions and expressing opinions. All of us have a responsibility here, especially when we feel inclined to condemn others on scant evidence. We need to ask ourselves a question: are they the problem, or am I?

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.