If you’ve been on the interwebs recently, you’ll have noticed that intolerance seems to be particularly high. From cyber-bullying, to politicians performing most of their foreign diplomacy on Twitter, it seems we have lost our ability to listen to the other side. Politics has become a nasty, messy area that I find myself less and less inclined to wade into. As do many others it seems, with recent disastrous consequences in the form of election results we claim we could never have seen coming. It seems increasingly that we’d rather get our news and opinions online than talk to one another. This move to online debates leaves us with biting, nasty, hateful argument rather than well thought out debate. I can’t help but wonder what this is going to get us and what it may already have been responsible for. What happened to debate? And is it still relevant in the modern day?
Although I don’t claim to be at all good at debate, I do love the idea of it. The mere mention of it conjures up thoughts of Greeks debating in early democracy and makes me think of a lost art. Dig a little deeper and I can see that it’s not quite ‘lost’ – there still exist a number of groups, classes and societies who teach and engage in debate; we can see it on TV in most Western countries – from Question Time to the Presidential debate; as well as public debates which you can pay to attend (the Ethics Centre in Sydney is host to some amazing debate). As well as clearly being a good form of entertainment, debate can also encourage open discussion and a strong consideration of other people’s points of view. However, my belief persists that debate is a lost art.
When Trump retweeted Jayda Fransen of Britain First there was a huge uproar; multiple articles and videos were published and the leaders of the United Kingdom and the United States got into arguments Twitter. And the media loved it. Watching an interview between Jayda Fransen of Britain First And Vice, it’s clear that in situations like these the media are not all too concerned with presenting opposing views. The resulting mudslinging was less ‘formal discussion’ and more fight. The interview in question was a tirade of abuse and shaming towards Fransen, until the point that she walked out of the interview. And while Fransen is a criminal extremist (and I by no means share or support any of her political views), I don’t agree with the way the whole thing was handled. Shaming her in public is just another way of showing those people who do share her views that they can’t speak out. It’s another way of ensuring we have no idea what’s going on in people’s minds until an election doesn’t go the way we thought it would and all of a sudden the people who thought they had to stay silent start to act out in a way we never thought possible before.
So imagine a different scenario. Instead of shaming people like Fransen on the internet, we invite her to a public debate. We have a panel of speakers on both sides – those who are for immigration and those against it. And instead of shouting people down, shaming them and calling them names, we listen to their points of view and calmly yet eloquently present rebuttals. Although some opinions may be swayed I’m sure the vast majority of people would leave a debate like that with their life views unchanged. They may learn a fact or two (in my perfect debate world all facts would need to be fact checked by an independent body before they can be used during the debate) but otherwise gain nothing more than an evening’s entertainment – surely it’s got to beat Goggle Box.
Whatever the individual response, the wider result could only be positive. Anything has got to be better than the situation we find ourselves in currently, where young people are uneducated on politics and don’t know which way to vote, where we rely on the internet for all of our opinions and where we never discuss them face to face because we find it too uncomfortable.
There are many other examples of our need for respectful discussion and debate of highly publicised issues. The recent vote on marriage equality in Australia featured a distinct lack of formal debate and was instead structured by terrible publicity from either side and shameful ad campaigns which resulted in a spike of the LGBTQI+ community reporting mental health and anxiety issues throughout the campaign, despite the eventual victory for love.
It seems to me that currently, we are not talking to one another, or talking about anything important. And while I understand that not everyone is interested in politics, it is something that affects us all. Therefore, finding a way to communicate with each other that could help to influence more educated thought and considered voting habits seems incredibly important. The many examples that I’ve read (and some that I’ve shared below) prove to me that if we could find a better medium in which to communicate, we would be a lot more tolerant. We shouldn’t have to engage in shouting matches which leave us feeling belittled and shamed to be able to get our message across. Debate undoubtedly still exists in some forms, however low the ratings are for Question Time. But I believe strongly that debate should have a more prominent place in modern discussion and politics. At its worst public debate could stoke emotions and cause a little upset, at least while we get used to something we seem to have been conditioned not to do. However, at its best debate could provide an open forum where people can come together without fear of hatred or abuse to learn and to seek out those with similar, or vastly different opinions to their own. This communication and education which is currently hiding within us and fighting to get out, could make a huge difference to our democracy.
And further watching: