Debating important national issues takes on an additional layer of complexity in small societies like Bermuda: the space between opinion leaders and the public is a lot smaller. This lack of distance creates a more intimate environment for interaction but it can also and regrettably, often does produce a more acrimonious environment where careful rational debate is supplanted by hyperbolic invective. We must do better.
One step along the way to doing better is to ensure our debates are driven by facts not supposition, not innuendo and not distortion. We should not be debating facts but rather how we choose to interpret them and the context in which they are placed. Last week’s conflict involving the BIU and PTB saw “the facts” of the issue as reported and discussed at length changing almost daily.
This no doubt contributed to the escalating war of words and the resulting industrial action. It should give us all pause that far too many of our “debates” permeating the public are punctuated with strongly held views without careful regard for the facts on the ground. On any given day you will find this on talk radio, blogs, readers’ comments on news websites, social media sites and letters to the Editor.
Emotions are a good thing in the right place. They should, however, have no prime position in national debates on critical issues. Some among us believe the stronger they argue their point emotionally the better their argument. While campaigning against the death penalty 20 years ago I was often challenged by people who would ask a question along the following lines: “What if it was your son or daughter killed?”
My view is that trying to persuade people to arrive at a decision on important policy matters based on an emotional (and often personal) argument is the basis for faulty policy. Such policy requires clarity of thought and no emotional baggage. Listen to many arguments made today and you will discern the emotional argument increasingly replacing the more objective assessments. To be clear, this argument refers to the mode of inquiry and not necessarily the positions taken on issues, since I feel emotionally driven arguments occupy all sides of the views expressed.
The Roman philosopher and orator Cicero once said: “We must make a personal attack when there is no argumentative basis for our speech.” These words resonate loudly in modern Bermuda. Rather than assess people’s views on issues and the logical/factual basis of their argument we see an increasing trend toward the ad hominem attack.
I find this is most often a consequence of those whose own arguments are weak or lacking in logic. My grandfather would dismiss such opponents by saying: “You couldn’t fight your way out of a wet paper bag.” Unfortunately, there are those who genuinely believe such arguments are both compelling and effective. An important consequence for Bermuda is that many people sit quietly on the sidelines, even if uncomfortably, and refuse to engage. They no doubt care as deeply about issues and want to see problems fixed as those of us publicly expressing our views but shy away, in part, because of the acrimony they see at play today.
We will certainly grow as a country when we can have national dialogues on important issues while remaining focused on these issues and jettisoning the emotional rhetoric and personal attacks. Having differing views on issues -- even on who can best run the country -- is actually a good thing since I believe it is through this interaction that we can arrive at better and more informed decisions. When people on opposite sides acknowledge and respect that there are alternate, legitimate arguments then we will have arrived at a more mature place for our country.