The death of Jo Cox is one of those moments which crystallises people's feelings about the environment they live in. It suggests that there is something terribly wrong with the way we are conducting political debate in this country. We have an opportunity now to take stock, to look at how we are behaving.

The faults are on all sides of the political divide, even if the anti-immigrant right appears to be more culpable on this occasion.

The hysterical tenor and baseless factual content of anti-immigration spokespeople plainly has specific repercussions. And this is not even the first time we've noticed. British anti-immigration tabloid articles were among the reading materials of Anders Breivik before he went on a killing spree in Norway. Those countless tabloid front pages with turgid lies about immigrants have an effect. Those UKIP posters encouraging you to think your country has been stolen have an effect. Nigel Farage telling people British women are at risk of sex attacks from migrants has an effect.

But let's not pretend this is just a problem on the right. The Scottish independence referendum last year may have been a festival of democracy north of the border, but if you were someone arguing for the union it didn't feel like it. Day after day the most hateful abuse was spewed out on social media towards anyone failing to take the nationalist line.

We see the same with Corbyn supporters. There are no fair minded critics in their world view, just traitors and those in the pay of Rupert Murdoch. Is it really so difficult to imagine a mentally unstable supporter doing something similar to one of the BBC reporters they target online? Popular Corbyn-supporting website The Canary is as bad as the tabloids when it comes to spreading lies and making every political event feel like a historic moment of defeat to dark political forces. They just happen to have a smaller readership.

There is a solution and it is not to do with censoring posters, or treating some political view as invalid, or banning people from debates. We can all just try to be a little nicer to one another.

To be nice is a radical political act. It is the socialism of personal relations. It does not mean you do not criticise and it does not mean that you do not feel anger at injustice. It just means it is directed at the issue, not the person debating it.

This is particularly hard on social media. It's remarkable how easy it is to have a respectful, enjoyable arguments in person, compared to how impossible it seems to be to do that online. Online we lose the tone and the body language, the little trickles of visual information which remind us that this is a friendly exchange. And everything is conducted in public, so there is the question of pride. Many feel they're not just arguing for their own position, they are representing their tribe  – whether that be pro-immigration supporters, or true Brits, or feminists, or battered women, or a radical Labour leader under attack by the press. And our narratives around politics are always of being the underdog, of fighting valiantly against much bigger, more powerful forces. So it feels doubly important to win, which no-one ever does really, and doubly easy to get emotional.

I hear many people, from different walks of life and areas of interest, talk of giving up social media altogether. The frenzied hatred on even the most minor issues, the banal idiocy of those who pretend every event is a conspiracy against their online tribe, the lack of humanity or humour: these things tire you out after a while. One person yesterday suggested I was partly responsible for the Cox death because I oppose safe spaces on campus. Another said I was using it to help my side win the referendum. The natural human response to such emotional ugliness is to switch it off and make it go away, to focus instead on the friends and family and colleagues around you who provide better emotional energy. Life's too short.

But if we do that we leave this remarkable technology to the people least morally qualified to use it. And we say something about ourselves too – that a platform which facilitated human voices became too poisonous to use. That would be a dreadful thing to admit. Instead, we should all make a concerted effort to be nicer to one another.

Online debate misses the visual cues that keep debate civil offline

Its not easy, but it is possible. We can focus our argument on the logic or the evidence of our opponent, not their character. We almost never do this now. Whether we accuse them of being in the pocket of a media paymaster or deliver that sneaky phrase 'as you well know', we usually target them, not what they're saying.

We can issue tiny jokes as we argue, little lighthearted asides that stop things getting too serious. We can try to think the best of our opponent and assume the best of their argument. We can search for areas of agreement, firm up the consensus, and then see if the remaining areas of disagreement could be put to one side for a moment while we pursue them. We can lose the growing sense that any concession to the other side is a betrayal of our moral purity.  And we can finish exchanges with a note of thanks and good humour, a small virtual nod for keeping it respectful.

None of us will succeed in this all the time. I can almost guarantee than in the next month I'll lose my cool over something online. And even if we do all manage it, none of it will necessarily stop damaged people doing damaging things. After all, there's much more to life than Twitter.

But it would help create a culture of respectful debate, of consideration, good humour and civility. And that more than anything would defeat the toxic suspicion which seems to surround us at present.

There are a few days left until Britain heads to the polls for the EU referendum. They provide a good opportunity for us to conduct ourselves in this manner.

Ian Dunt is the editor of

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