HERE are a few words that I fear might be dying out.

If. But. Although. Maybe.

You see, they’re all words that we need when we’re acknowledging that there might be two (or more) sides to an argument. And they come in handy when we’re admitting that we might not know everything.

But amid the increasingly strident public debate about any and every subject of the day, I worry that people are losing interest in acknowledging that other points of view may be valid.

Take a look online at the way a lot of people debate any subject, from Brexit to what they thought of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Nuanced, even-handed judgements are out, and loud, strident opinions are in.

If this trend continues, we may have no need for words like the ones above, or of such phrases as “On the other hand…”, “I can see both sides” and “Let’s not rush to judgement”.

(My reference to the recent Star Wars film wasn’t facetious, by the way. Take a look at what people are saying about each other online in that argument. Many of them are no more capable of polite disagreement than they would be if they were debating abortion or gun control. And you can bet that race and sex somehow come into their arguments too.)

Britain and the US went through some pretty divisive democratic processes back in 2016, and I think that has a lot to do with the extreme nature of so much debate in the world at the moment.

Here in the UK, we had to make an important, probably permanent, yes/no decision in a referendum. Debates don’t get any more polarised than that.

In those circumstances, with people on both sides campaigning vigorously for their point of view, you don’t see a lot of subtlety. Very few people say “Weighing all things up, this is the side I’ve come down on, but if it goes the other way, we’ll manage.”

In the US, people had to decide between one of the most politically experienced candidates for the presidency and a maverick who broke all the rules. Supporters of each one couldn’t find much to respect in the other.

On both sides of the Atlantic, these contests seemed to be about much more than the subject at hand. We seemed to be witnessing what the Americans call culture wars, with voters choosing to stand on one side or the other of a seismic divide between traditionalists and progressives.

The angry, abusive tone has been present in much public debate for a while, but I suspect the events of 2016 encouraged and inflamed it. And on social media, people’s views are more likely to get liked and shared if they are forthright and memorable, even they are also unreasonable.

Here are some of the kind of moderate thoughts you don’t often see expressed online:

  • “I don’t like that MP’s politics, but I can’t help liking them.”
  • “I don’t like the Daily Mail one bit, but I think Virgin Trains was wrong to stop selling it.”
  • “I think the Iraq war was an awful mistake, but I’m interested in hearing what Tony Blair has to say about other things.”
  • “The #MeToo campaign has highlighted some terrible abuses, but we don’t know the facts in every case.”
  • “We certainly don’t agree about The Last Jedi. Oh well, it’s only a film.”

It’s easy to despair about the future of rational debate when you follow controversies online, or when you watch the angry mobs who contribute to shows such as Question Time.

I feel more upbeat when I remember that in everyday life, most people are capable of disagreeing respectfully. All the statements I listed above are the kind of things people might say in the pub or coffee shop.

It’s easy to shout and sloganise, but you only change minds if you start by understanding someone’s point of view.

Well, that’s what I think, so of course it must be entirely right.