Thursday, April 21, 2011

Partisanship Passing for Debate

In July, 1998, I sat in the office of a senior executive at XL, having just concluded our agreement for my company to conduct some research for his company. Stretching back in his chair he asked: “So who's going to win the election?” I replied, “The PLP” and explained why, based on my polling. His body language and skin coloration immediately reflected apprehension about this comment and the remaining few minutes of our hitherto cordial chat were strained. Over the next few weeks he refused to respond to any of my e-mails and the contract was lost. 

A year or so later, as chairman of the Taxi Advisory Council, I invited the representative of taxi owners to make a submission so that we could negotiate a long overdue rate increase. Upon hearing his presentation, I thanked him and indicated this was a useful point of departure for negotiations. His response: “Oh no, this is our first and last position. We have nothing further to negotiate.” This intransigence meant no further discussions took place for a while and taxi drivers were forced to wait at least 18 months before they received any increase. These anecdotes reflect two characteristics that unfortunately still resonate in our community today. Firstly, there is the visceral reaction to ideas that run contrary to one's own, effectively, a refusal to accept there are legitimate alternative viewpoints. Secondly, we see a demonstrated unwillingness to engage on a level of mutual respect to address issues, even when the outcome could provide benefits for all affected parties. 

In practice, this means far too many of our “discussions” are not really that at all. Rather, we seem to have a series of conversations that criss-cross each other but no real engagement. We see this, for example, in the far too significant numbers of people who seem intent on arguing extreme positions not that they necessarily believe it irrespective of the facts. This is perhaps most apparent in the artificial debate between those who argue the government has done nothing right and those who argue the government has done nothing wrong, perfunctory gestures to the other side notwithstanding. 

There are those who simply dismiss facts, whether of history or not, simply because it does not fit into their worldview. Such was the view of an aquaintance who told me recently that he dismissed my poll results entirely because he could not accept the finding that 20 percent of people thought things were moving in the right direction. 

Race and politics remain the two significant hotspots in our discourse today and this is where these characteristics are most pronounced. 

My views on race were articulated in this newspaper almost four years ago and I intend to have it reprinted in full next week. At this point, I think it is important that we never use race as a crutch, as a sub-text of every discussion. On the other hand, there are times when race matters and is critical to enhancing our understanding of issues. Intelligent and honest debate does not shy away from this; particularly if one wants to educate to transform society into a better place. Acting as if you are blind so that you cannot see what's going on as did the wife of a fascist leader in Bertolucci's 1900 does not change the reality. An inconvenient truth is a truth nevertheless. 

Political discourse has devolved to the point where the sensible majority refuse to engage, frustrated as they are by the intolerably partisan nature of much of what passes for debate. It is easy to conclude there are those who care more about their party position than anything else and are resolutely opposed to aknowledging anything of value from “the other side”.

Continuing along this path will simply create a larger segment of disaffected, apathetic voters who may well disengage from the political process altogether. Many of our young people are already heading down that path. We can get to a point of genuine engagement on issues and with a focus on outcomes beneficial to our country. To achieve this we require a greater proportion of our leadership, broadly defined, and our opinion shapers to lead by example.

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