A few years ago, I read an article by the American playwright, John Patrick Shanley, in which he bemoaned the death of true debate in the US. Specifically, said Shanley, people no longer talked to or tried to persuade each other, they instead spent their time shrieking at each other.
Shanley explained that this was part of the thinking behind his most famous play, ‘Doubt.’ In it, a Catholic priest in the States is accused of improper conduct towards a young boy. The battle lines are drawn almost immediately. The ‘did he or didn’t he’ tension is maintained through a series of masterful exchanges between the priest and the school principal, a nun, who has made it her business to be his prosecutor (there is of course a very good film version with Meryl Streep and the tragically missed Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Only at the end, with the conflict resolved to (almost) everyone’s satisfaction, does the school principal break down and confess to her young novice, “I have such doubt Sister.”
This, I think, is Shanley’s point, namely that there’s far too much conviction around the public sphere, and nowhere near enough doubt. Instead of public debate, we have a shrill marketplace of conflicting ideas, and showing the slightest doubt about any of your team’s notions is considered fatal.
When was the last time you heard a spokesman for some political party or NGO on radio or TV respond to a question with something like “well yeah. I’m not so sure about that. You might be right, but then again.”?
We have to negotiate our daily lives in such doubt. It’s an intrinsic part, perhaps the intrinsic part, of being human. In our daily lives, we have to at least pretend to be open to the views of others. If we didn’t, then carrying on any kind of functioning social existence would be impossible.
We’d become those weird little people, trapped in ever shrinking bubbles. We’d end up talking to ourselves an awful lot of the time.
Yet this is precisely what happens in the so called public sphere. Debate is no longer about the sharing of ideas, it’s about the shrill denunciation of each other’s identity. In such a toxic environment, actual ideas have long ago ceased to have any meaning, because ideas no longer have value in and of themselves.
People with ‘skin in the game’ tend to care a lot more than the rest of us about a particular issue. Thus, activists and people who get paid by NGOs tend to be much more likely to feature on media ‘debates’ about that issue. While this is perfectly natural, it also means that ‘debate’ tends to head rather quickly towards the emotional extremes.
An animal rights activist is much more likely than an occasional meat eater to end up shouting at a scientist in a radio studio. The activist is much more likely to get invited on a news show, because the more sharply defined the conflict, the better it is for media. It’s much sexier to see someone losing their s**t on live telly than it is to see someone pluck their chin and go “well, you could have a point, but on the other hand.”
The proliferation and ever mushrooming budgets of NGOs add greatly to the toxicity and basic untruth of public debate. Consider: we’ve known for decades that politicians and Government officials lie to us, or at least greatly distort the truth for reasons of policy. But the more NGOs evolve, the more they become exactly like political parties and bureaucracies.
Most NGOs now have a ‘party line,’ which their spokespersons get paid ever increasing amounts of money to promulgate. The basic purpose of that party line isn’t so much to solve the problem that led to the creation of the NGO in the first place, but rather to ensure that the NGO continues to get loads and loads of money from Governments and ordinary citizens. Somebody has to pay all those salaries, after all.
Just like Governments before them, NGOs will seek to keep certain facts back from the public if such facts might be seen to jeopardise those lines of funding. They will also seek to police debate around their special issue with bogus rules of political correctness.
One area where this influence has been especially toxic is in the debate about Europe’s response to the refugee crisis.
NGOs want more and more money to deal with the crisis. They also believe, for reasons of both conviction and convenience, that more and more refugees should be accepted by European countries. The question of whether the economies and social infrastructures of certain European countries are able to cope with the influx isn’t the NGO’s problem, it’s just there to lobby for more and more refugees and more and more funding for itself.
In the meantime, mainstream politicians are afraid to disagree with the NGO, for fear of being instantly branded as racists, so the political response to the NGO’s demands – not to mention to the original crisis – becomes inherently duplicitous and hypocritical.
Debate thus becomes a kind of shadow war instead of an honest attempt to devise an agreed response to a problem. Media organisations will constantly frame the issue as a debate between NGOs and Governments, only occasionally cutting to some frothing at the mouth peasant who doesn’t want any foreigners near his precious blade of grass, by way of balance, don’cha know, or traditional media’s idea of balance anyway.
In this, as in so many other issues – such as abortion, pornography, the clash between religions and secularism – any middle ground gets almost instantly squeezed out, as does any solution to the problem which doesn’t leave a sizeable number of people seething with resentment.
It’s partly human nature, partly laziness on the part of media organisations. It’s simply too much effort to go looking for someone who’s interested in the issue without being all that passionate, especially when you have all those highly paid employees of NGOs hanging around the studio.
Things aren’t likely to get better anytime soon. The growth of so called ‘identity politics’ is really about separate bunches of people shouting ‘death to everyone else’s ideas.’ In ‘identity politics,’ the mere voicing of an idea can amount to a hate crime, because a growing number of people now feel entitled, not to disagree, but to be personally wounded and insulted by your idea.
This might not be so bad if conflicting identities were allowed equal space on traditional media, but a la Animal Farm, some identities will always be regarded as more worthy of attention than other ones.
The idea of reason fleeing debate is at least as old as Swift. There was, perhaps, never all that much reason in debate to begin with, but the public sphere these days resembles nothing more than tribes of humans shrieking and flinging missiles at each other from across a microphone. Forget all that guff about bringing people together, there seems to be an awful lot more money in conflict.