What has happened to Civility in Politics and Our Society?

Democracy is of course messy, and controversial issues have always generated strong feelings, but there is a feeling that the situation is out of hand and the mood hysterical

“In his book ‘In Defence of Civility’, James Calvin Davis proposes “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (or especially) those with whom we disagree”. We expect politicians to focus on the issues rather than on the individual(s) espousing them, defend their interpretations using verified information, thoughtfully listen to what others say, treat the ideas of others with respect, and avoid verbal violence. This is not what the live debates in our parliament unfold before our eyes every week…”


I do not always believe what I read in the newspapers, but when a prominent personality stoops to verbally assaulting and insulting and screaming at journalists in the public arena, treating them as ‘bachiara’, undeserving of any response from him, we begin to realise to what extent the level of civility of politicians has gone low.

Civil discourse is defined as robust, honest, frank and constructive dialogue and deliberation that seeks to advance public interest. It is about our ability to have conversation about topics about which we disagree, and our ability to listen to each other’s perspectives. If people are not free to converse without being denigrated, what does that say about the ‘content of character’ of our interlocutors? Is it really so hard to engage in the practices of asking questions, listening and responding in a sane and civil manner?

Politics should not be vitriolic or scornful or vituperative, and we should be able to enjoy political discussions and consider them as an essential part of the culture of a democratic society. Discourse is the foundation of democracy. The ability to have a respectful and informed conversation about politics in our homes, on the media, with friends, family or with total strangers is essential for a society that values the ideals of liberty and freedom.

My perception is that since the 2014 elections, there prevails a breakdown in public discourse which is eating away at the very core of our democracy, what with the virulence and personal attacks in Mauritian politics such as ‘femel lichien’, ‘mo p… arzot’, the tendency to reduce adversaries to labels like ‘mahalangta’ (philanderer-in-chief) or ‘vender cotomili’ that aim more to destroy the credibility of their adversaries and undermine the latter’s power than to advance any common good. Such nastiness, name-calling, and negativity are turning us into a rude democracy.

Name-calling is the use of language to defame, demean, or degrade individuals. Such terms are used intentionally to debase adversaries. These words dehumanise the people they are directed against and imply that they do not deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. As an educator at the University of Mauritius, I used to teach a module for English major graduates on “The Art of Public Speaking”, where I used to stress that name-calling and abusive language also pose ethical problems in public speaking when they are used to silence opposing voices.

A democratic society depends on the free and open expression of ideas. All citizens have the right to join in the never-ending dialogue of democracy. As public speakers, whether in Parliament or any public arena, we have an ethical obligation to help preserve that right by avoiding tactics such as name-calling that inherently undermine the accuracy or respectability of public statements made by those who voice opinions different from ours.

Democracy is of course messy, and controversial issues have always generated strong feelings, but there is a feeling that the situation is out of hand and the mood hysterical. This has been aggravated by the fact that thanks to the social media such as ‘Facebook’ everyone has a megaphone. And all opinions can reach massive audiences instantaneously. Unfortunately, the high degree of anonymity afforded people on the Internet has made the online world a breeding ground for rude, mean-spirited and hateful behaviour. Anonymity on the Internet gives people license to say anything they wish with impunity and has so reduced responsibility that comments sections are dominated by hate, ugliness and even overtly communalist invective.

Among the many signs pointing to the steady decline in civility are the daily occurrences of mean-spirited mudslinging among the loyal supporters of politicians. We cannot divorce lack of civility in the political sphere from incivility in general society. Politicians are indeed the main driver of incivility in society. My take on politics and getting good competent people to join politics is that reasonable people do not want to be embroiled in campaigns of denigration and vilification.

Civility is also defined as caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. Essentially it’s being able to disagree with someone without disrespecting that person. This is the foundation of healthy dialogue. In his book ‘In Defence of Civility’, James Calvin Davis proposes “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (or especially) those with whom we disagree”. We expect politicians to focus on the issues rather than on the individual(s) espousing them, defend their interpretations using verified information, thoughtfully listen to what others say, treat the ideas of others with respect, and avoid verbal violence. This is not what the live debates in our parliament unfold before our eyes every week.

Negativity and anger have been shown to have serious effects on our ability to make good decisions – besides being detrimental to our health. Disagreement can be powerful when done respectfully. Passion is effective as long as it is directed towards positive and constructive outcomes. In other words, it’s possible to disagree without being aggressive, so why do we need to lose our temper? As one proverb says, “If you are right, there is no need to get angry… And if you are wrong, then you don’t have any right to get angry.”

 


* Published in print edition on 13 July 2018

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