Preference for insult over argument will damage SA’s democracy

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

WHY do many of our politicians believe that an old idea becomes new if you add an insult to it — and that you win an argument when you call your opponent names? Because they know that this is what the national debate expects from them.

The preference for insult over argument was on show last week when Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier called Deputy Defence Minister Kebby Maphatsoe an "idiot" and refused to withdraw the remark. MPs refuse to withdraw when they think that what they said was so important that they must stand by it even if that means they must leave the House. It is hard to understand why calling Mr Maphatsoe an "idiot" was so important that it required a stand of principle.

Many things could be said about a deputy minister who accuses the public protector of being a foreign agent without any evidence simply because she is doing her job that might be worth being asked to leave Parliament. It might be worth calling him an authoritarian who prefers smears to facts. Or someone who cannot tell the difference between a constitutional democracy and a conspiracy. Either would have undermined Maphatsoe’s credibility while saying something about democracy’s health. But what did the word "idiot" add to the discussion? It isn’t even accurate — bullying and smearing are nasty but there is nothing idiotic about them. Why stand by a playground taunt when you could be saying something worth hearing?

The answer is surely that Mr Maynier was fitting in with the trend among politicians and other political insiders — the strange view that insulting an opponent takes debate to a higher level.

African National Congress politicians and supporters — including Mr Maphatsoe — have been pioneers here: they responded to the public protector’s work on Nkandla by attacking her personality, her physical appearance — anything but the content of her report. The Economic Freedom Fighters are also trailblazers, denouncing opponents as "liars" and "thieves" and routinely responding to criticism by insulting their critics’ personality, ethics and, if appropriate, race.

But the politicians are symptoms, not causes, of the problem. Our media and those who influence the debate are far more interested in people who draw attention to themselves by insulting their opponents than in those who want to talk about ideas. Since this Parliament convened, every policy area has been the subject of a debate prompted by ministers’ budget votes. Opposition parties have raised their proposals and have tried to hold ministers accountable. The government has responded with its own positions and proposals. How much of this has made it into our public debate? Hardly any. And so what we should do about the economy or health or education is relegated to the margins, while the theatre of mutual insult receives saturation coverage and "analysis".

Discussion of politics on social media here is often punctuated by insults. Commentators are insulted if they dare to use reasoned analysis rather than abuse: those who court popularity hasten to join the trend by substituting insult for argument. Activists for causes also often seem to think that insults are essential if you want to be taken seriously.

Much of the mainstream debate seems to see insult as a contribution to "vigorous debate" — we are told, directly or indirectly, that those who rely on insult and abuse are saying what needs to be said. In reality, they are impressing those who agree with them but adding nothing to our understanding of anything. In this atmosphere, it is no wonder that politicians elevate insults to an issue of principle — it is their only ticket to being taken seriously.

There is always room for wit and insult in democratic politics — a clever barb often makes a point better than an earnest speech. But the insults are useful when they make a point, not when they substitute for one. What point is made by calling someone an "idiot" or insulting their physical features or blaming their views on personality flaws? What we hear at present is not the clever use of insult to highlight problems but the use of childish taunts by people who clearly have nothing better to say.

Stale thoughts do not become fresh and new when an insult is attached. Politicians and activists are not representing us better when they smear and slur instead of speaking and arguing. The more we encourage this, the less right we have to complain when the national debate ignores discussion of the problems that face us.

Democracy is meant to be, among other things, a contest between competing ideas on how to address our problems. That debate does not need to be overly serious or high-brow — there is plenty of room for making points in a manner that enables everyone to join — and to enjoy — the discussion. But our democracy is in danger of becoming a degraded competition between attention seekers who have no need to say anything interesting because a taunt will always gain a headline. And we have no reason to expect the politicians to take issues more seriously than insults unless we do that ourselves.

Article By: Steven Friedman.

Article Source: Bisiness Day Live.