There is a great tendency, I have noticed, across the commentariat, politicians and the like, to look at the issues in the public eye, and to castigate their opponents in the worst possible light. This is no great revelation, because when the battle for power doesn’t require convincing opponents, but convincing the audience, it is easier to spin things to win than it is to win on grounds of being correct.
When the media are the biggest mouthpieces with the broadest reach across all demographics, it does give reason to be sceptical of the tactics. While the media is wed only to ratings and revenue, its ability to stir up drama where there needn’t be any is something that can only be toxic to public discourse.
However, I am currently concerned about the readiness to which we ascribe the worst motivations to certain peoples’ positions. When we do this, we devolve the public debate to a tit-for-tat series of ad hominems. And if this is done in a setting with a live audience, the cheering and applause that occurs makes to neat, easily editable bites that make it appear as though one “side” was shut down.
It’s why I loathe these “town hall” style events.
These type of events, and talk shows with audiences, are an exercise of packing the room with cheerleaders to make sure there’s an appearance of popularity for a position, and to convince undecided people of the what the truth should be. So whenever a figurehead on the stage makes a remark that points out the supposed poor character of the person opposite them, and the crowd erupts into cheer, it gives an impression – rightly or wrongly – that there is truth to the charge.
The toxicity comes when we suggest that the opposite position is driven by the worst of opinions. Furthermore, there is a contention that to even suggest that an opposing position warrants any discussion is to give legitimacy to hateful thought. This is the point where true debate breaks down. It is policing thought.
To use a couple examples, in public debate:
Someone who opposes same-sex marriage is only motivated by their hate of homosexuality and homosexual people at large.
To suggest that someone may want to debate the merits of same-sex marriage because they view marriage as a means of creating a stable environment for children (and not solely for “love”) is to be “giving legitimacy to hate.”
When debate is reduced to a discussion where only one opinion is correct, while any opposition is to embody the worst traits of humankind, it is a recipe for the breakdown of debate, and paves the way for tyranny, I feel.
But this is not a post about same-sex marriage. It’s about how the ability to debate is eroding, if not having completely blown away over the dunes of time.
Traditionally it has been the unpopular opinions that require more airtime. We saw it during the civil rights movements where people wanting fundamental human rights (which they were denied), where the unpopular opinion was to oppose segregationism. Today, very, very few would argue that segregation was good policy, but during the civil-rights movement, it was a controversial contention.
However today, the unpopular opinion – to use my example above – is to oppose same-sex marriage. But any opposing view is characterised as being driven by hate, as opposed to the concern of the views of marriage being changed. Even my using the subject as a means of highlighting my point could be viewed as an advocation for a hateful position – when my own opinion is favourable toward same-sex marriage.
But the only accepted response to opposition to same-sex marriage is to paint the individual as hateful, and to deny the voice so as to not give legitimacy to said hate.
This is the path to tyranny, if not outright thought-policing.