Terrifying truths about public debate

Burning issues: But can we talk about them? (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy)

Burning issues: But can we talk about them? (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy)

There is always a lot at stake in political debate. Consequently, the quality of political debate can easily deteriorate as factions and individuals push their various agendas. This will probably be particularly true of political discourse in our country this year.

After all, political debate isn’t merely about mental masturbation — like solving a chess puzzle in a newspaper. Political debate has very real material consequences for each of our lives.

When the consequences of any discussion or debate matter to us materially, we become vested emotionally in the outcomes of those debates. And the result can be that all rehearsed rationality goes through the window, as if we were in an existential battle where truth and cogency become less important than securing and wielding power, and gaining access to resources with which to do continue doing so.

The ANC succession battle, for example, has already started — despite disingenuous attempts by some senior ANC officials, at least rhetorically, to deny that that is the case. These battles are bruising battles because the winners will have access to lucrative positions within the party and within the state. Losers can find themselves suddenly outside the patronage networks and, no longer being political flavour of the month, might struggle to reinvent their lives and careers elsewhere in society.

The effect of these high stakes on our discourse is that we will see fallacious moves in the public space becoming even more popular than is ordinarily the case anyway. Journalists, writers, analysts, newspapers, and media houses more generally, will becomes sites of contestation. There will be an attempt to discredit voices whose work in the public space is perceived, or calculated, to be a setback in one’s journey towards Luthuli House, or towards the feeding trough within the state.

The kind of fallacious reasoning to which this will give rise typically includes ad hominem responses to the opinions and reportage of political reporters, writers, and analysts. Discourse will suffer. This is worth bemoaning given that, in general, outside of elective conference years, the quality of public debate is not nearly as good as is desirable in a society premised on the ideal of a deliberative democracy.

Not that party-political battles are the only triggers for poor discourse. In general, as human beings, we tend to be emotionally vested in not having our most deeply held beliefs critically challenged, let alone potentially falsified.

This is why debates about land, racial identity, social justice, minimum wages and similar hot issues can leave friendships and professional relationships scarred, even broken. I know of colleagues in universities whose friendships have been irreparably harmed in the last year because each were deeply offended by the content of the views held by the other in debates about decoloniality.

We truly are living in a time in which the political is now demonstrably, for all of us, the personal. And it is not clear what we should do to ensure that deep disagreement is possible, and not avoided, and yet that such open and deep disagreement might still generate productive outcomes in dialogue.

One starting point is for the ability to think and reason critically to be recognised as a technical skill set that must be directly taught in schools. Currently, we do not teach people how to think. There appears to be an assumption that critical thinking is an automatic by-product of any general education.

But that assumption is obviously false. Someone can have a doctoral degree in a subject in which they are now an expert and still show a tendency towards habitually poor forms of reasoning.

The reason for this is that formally educated people are no less susceptible than others to wanting their cherished beliefs protected from attempts to show them up as false or poorly justified. Educated people also have psychosocial and material needs that can influence the way they behave in the arena of public dialogue. 

We are all susceptible to sloppy thinking, fallacious reasoning, unkind engagement, and being hard-headed. This is true even of debate coaches and lecturers who teach formal logic and argumentation theory.

Still, we are more likely as a society to improve the quality of political debate and public discourse in general if we develop a compulsory curriculum that schools and tertiary institutions teach. Teaching critical thinking is not a silver bullet — but it would be a starting point, one that is practical, and one that could slowly begin to have some positive influence on public debate.

Yet access to quality education is itself so unequal in our country that educational institutions cannot be uniquely burdened with the goal of helping to improve the quality of our discourse. Some academic experts, such as the University of Cape Town’s Jacques Rousseau, take public education and engagement on this practical challenge very seriously. We need more of that kind of interaction between experts and the average Joe.

This is all about forming good intellectual habits. And, as with all habits, it will not happen overnight. I fear, in the meantime, that our public discourse will remain a terrifying space in which trolls thrive and reasoned engagement is rare.

Eusebius McKaiser is a political analyst, broadcaster and author. His latest book is Run, Racist, Run

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