Can we have a civil society, please?

(Note: This article first appeared on www.eamonnmallie.com on 2 Dec 2012, and is distributed with the author's permission)

Is it just me, or is there anyone else out there getting more and more dispirited about the quality of public discourse? Arguments on an ad hominem basis; speeches with barbed phrases, and interviews that both lower the tone and lessen understanding of the issues apparently under consideration.

I am perplexed as well as dispirited. I have been under the impression that leaders were elected to lead. I cannot really believe that any significant number of voters went to the polls to ensure that their representatives or their colleagues indulged in one liners that demean others or lessen the potential for progress.

Yet I also sense a pattern here in wider society. One has only to read the comments that often follow on at the end of an article or blog. Anonymity for many such contributions often means that the tone is lowered with the language tending towards the abusive.

Thankfully, not everyone with influence is buying into this pattern and culture. For example, one of my friends who is an accredited lobby journalist in Parliament at Westminster has a principle that he will never write anything that rubbishes or diminishes anyone he has met or interviewed.

Of course, there are complex and often very difficult issues to be discussed and debated in the media, but he feels that his role is to uplift that discussion rather than contribute to the denigration of those who have to make the decisions – even if he feels that they are not very good at what they are doing.

My core point is really quite a simple one. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we re-introduced civility into political and public discourse as well as civic life?

An article by the American Christian thinker Stanley Hauerwas which was sent to me recently, describes the situation very well. He said, and I quote ‘I use the example of the Queensberry rules with boxing.  (With roots in) Roman gladiatorial games, boxing was pretty brutal until the 19th century.

In 1867 the Marquis of Queensbury lent his name to regulations that put boxing in a ring, under a referee, within (a framework) of rules. For instance: touch gloves to begin and don’t punch below the belt.  But boxing is not a love-in.  Boxers fight until one loses. That’s democratic civility.’

I fear that unless we get a grip on our public discourse, the arena for the battle of ideas will not be the healthy public square where there is disagreement, debate and a serious attempt to persuade. It will be the arena of the gladiator where there is blood on the ground and an expectation that more will follow.

I do not want to pretend that my own interactions with people over the years have always been as uplifting as they should have been. And I do want to apologise properly for the times when what I have said or the tone in which I have said it has been less than worthy.

I have tried to learn from those encounters, and I do believe in life long learning! I have learned the hard way that good arguments do not of themselves win the hearts and minds of people, even of those who may be inherently sympathetic.

Effective persuasion is a very skilled business and even the best arguments often need a long time to take root. Adversarial encounters may give a buzz at the time, but usually widen the communication gap and lengthen the time needed for proper understanding and persuasion.

It is a sad reflection on us that we make saying ‘Sorry’ such hard work, even for relatively minor matters that have gone wrong. This bodes ill for any prospect of saying sorry into issues of greater pain and complexity.

That is a key reason why I am so dispirited at the current very public outbreaks of aggravation. As an antidote to this, I suggest that we would all do well to try to usher in a season of respect, verbal restraint and public and inter-personal civility. Why not?

Norman Hamilton. Rev Norman Hamilton is minister of Ballysillan Presbyterian Church.
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One Response to Can we have a civil society, please?

  1. Puran Agrawal says:

    Rev Hamilton highlights a serious issue in our public discourse. The root causes of the problem, in view, go back to the radical changes in cultural outlook and personal expectations that have have taken place in Britain in particular and Western societies in general over the fifty years or so, which have encourage an attitude of me first and foremost and of “win” by hook or crook. Televison interviewrs like John Humphreys, Jeremy Paxman, Andrew Neil, self-styled spokesmen for what the viewers demand, have encouraged such attitudes—-Jon Snow was an exception until recently; recently I see some signs him being “forced” to follow the others.

    In the sixties there was a current affairs programme called “Late Night Line UP” in which one or two public figures were interviewed in depth with a view to finding out what the interviewee,s beliefs and thoughts were on a variety of important topics. The interviewee was allowed to respond in his normal way without being constantly interrupted and harangued with, “can you answer the question?” Such interviews are rare nowadays.

    The situation is made far worse by day-time so-called “chat” programmes where to be able to shout at each other and be abusive to each others seem to be the “requirements0 for being allowed to appear on the programme.

    I share Rev Hamilton’s longing for a “civil society” but am not very hopeful given that most people in public life, especially the politicians, have now learned the tricks of coping with the “rude” interviewers and other people who appear on such programmes are “happy” to behave in the expected manners.

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