Monday, February 04, 2013

Are politics and polite disagreement mutually exclusive?

Is it me, or is politics becoming ever more unpleasant as the years go by? Perhaps it has always been thus, but the unpleasantness is much more immediate, much more public than it was previously.

Once upon a time, politicians were treated with rather more deference than is the case now. Interviews with the media were more of a lecture than an inquisition, and there was little attempt made to challenge what was being said. It made for rather dull television, I suspect, but then there wasn't an awful lot of choice, was there? Effectively, you got to find out what the politicians wanted you to know.

As that deference has been stripped away, we have become a more informed electorate, with more media outlets, more rigorous questions, more research capacity. Alright, a potentially more informed electorate, as it has become more difficult to judge the value, accuracy and  credibility of any one source, presuming that any one voter has the skills or desire to find out for themselves.

But the end of deference has gone beyond that to almost aggressive cynicism. The assumption that politicians are fair game for the sort of treatment that is now commonplace means that there is no level to which some in the political arena will not stoop.

It does, in too many quarters, seem entirely reasonable to describe someone with whom they disagree with as mad, idiotic, corrupt or simply evil. The notion that,  for entirely honourable, philosophically consistent reasons, a different view might be held cannot, accordingly, be respected, it must be quashed in an aggressive, offensive, bombastic way. There can be no doubt, the heterodoxy must be preserved.

And yet, most people, most ordinary, non-political people don't lay claim to such certainty. If presented with a credible (in their eyes) argument, they can be persuaded to at least keep an open mind on an issue.

The internet has made matters far worse. You can now, from the safety and anonymity of your keyboard, make vile accusations as to the motivation of your opponents without evidence or accuracy, and drive the less thick-skinned from the field altogether. But what if they're right, either partly or wholly. Or, what if there are equally effective, but alternative, means of achieving the same thing? You have, technically, won. But mightn't everyone have lost?

The advantage of debate based upon mutual respect and an openness to other ideas is an increased likelihood of reaching a conclusion which taps more of the knowledge and expertise that exists whilst increasing buy-in. It encourages greater participation and engagement, broadens the field of potential elected officials and, by doing so, creates a politics that looks more like the communities it seeks to serve.

Isn't that the aim of the exercise?...


Anonymous said...

Perhaps not the best day to protest against the public's cynicism about politicians ...

Jennie Rigg said...

your assertion that most ordinary people can be persuaded is at is both with my experience and the scientific evidence.

Mark Valladares said...


I bow to your greater personal and professional experience but have found on my patch at least that, whilst I might not be able to convince them of the righteousness of my argument, it does at least sew some temporary uncertainty in minds. And if they are that resolute, there's little point in wasting anyone's time trying.

Persuasion can't be about winning there and then, it must be about giving people ideas they can check should they wish to do so.

It's still sad...