by Scott M. Patterson
As a flurry of Tweets, Facebook comments, TV panel show clips and newspaper articles indicate, 2016 was somewhat mad.
To a great many, it was more apocalyptic than idiosyncratic, a cultural step back as ignominy after ignominy came to pass, events once unthinkable but now a reality. The tone and mood was that of Thomas Hardy despair-fetish as broadcasters wept on live television and borderline-sociopathic politicians railed against the immortality of the public and the culture itself.
There was Orlando, Syria, Yemen and Istanbul, unimaginable suffering imparted by near-diabolical design. This is to virtually ignore what is spoken of most as we bring in 2017, the politic.
The extraordinary occurred twice last year on this battleground, as first the United Kingdom exited the European Union amid acrimony and bare-faced contempt, and then the United States concluded months of bitter hostility by electing Donald Trump. Said nations didn’t live up to their names, and the tried and tested methods of persuasion failed. Whether you celebrated or regretted these comings, there can be little doubt they changed the face of modern politics.
The reasons for such outcomes are many, wildly contrasting and almost impossible to summarise succinctly. What it demonstrated, however, was that there is a divide within Western Civilisation. France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden are other core examples of a widening chasm that may enable toxic regressions, but also reflects legitimate fears.
Trump, post-election and post-truth. A blatant demagogue, he was able to ascend to the greatest heights available through sheer opportunism, fulfilling the egoist’s dream, laying bare a superpower’s most hideous dirty secret; a tycoon who lied about funding his own campaign was depicted as a ‘man of the people’ and followed that narrative all the way into the Oval Office.
It is testament to both genius marketing and inept resistance. The separation between the people and the governing class created a vacuum which Trump filled, and by appealing to grievance and disillusion, he gleaned a support base which exponentially grew. It became immune to the accusations of racism and misogyny, because by then they had ceased caring about his decorum. His outsider status was his asset, and thus his support was joined by those driven to such despair that they cast for chaos.
Even democracy will, in malaise, unearth a Caligula.
Despairing as this outcome may be, it also points us in the direction we must take in 2017. There surely can be little doubt that the standard of debate last year was abysmal.
Accusation and counter-accusation were primary weapons, and when they eventually immunised opponents, they were replaced by slander, insult and violence. ‘Criminal’, or ‘racist’, or ‘unfit’, or ‘evil’. Such hyperbole and nonsense barracking mimicked street-level disputes yet provided a blueprint to those who knew better. Broadsheet journalists spoke of hatred winning the day. CNN’s president admitted it might have been a mistake to air a presidential candidate’s speeches in full. Within the battles themselves, there was seldom reasoned discussion or argument, few crossings were led by analysis of the facts, and the routine use of blatant lies and obvious scaremongering went unchallenged.
Failure to defend the point and to present the case is political incompetence, yet seems in line with a continuing slide from interrogation to subjugation on the public platform. Debate, that most powerful of tools, is routinely ignored, routinely banned and routinely undervalued even when the political climate is crying out for views to be properly explored.
You don’t have to be a utilitarian to respect John Stuart Mill’s assertion that reason is a science, and thus should be scientifically tested at the dais, lest the truth pass our echo chambers by. Post-truth goes both ways.
When slavery was abolished here, it wasn’t because its evil was self-evident, as hideous a thought as that may be. It was because of lobbying and a series of debates which demonstrated that economic pragmatism could not outweigh the immorality.
Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection was born out by scientific fact, but what secured intellectual consensus was the 1860 Oxford Evolution Debate and the arguments of Thomas Huxley et al.
Just as it looked like the BNP might become a tertiary force in British politics, their leader Nick Griffin was summoned onto BBC Question Time and showed himself to be disingenuous and myopically blinkered. His odious party’s popularity plummeted.
By challenging ideas presented and arguing your own clearly, you can open up truth to the many. Great things can be accomplished, and the worst society has to offer exposed.
The lack of such scrutiny was a huge reason for Trump’s election. As he played fast and loose with facts, lies and policies, Clinton failed to nail him down. The ‘basket of deplorables’ needed more than revulsion, and they never got that disincentive. The policy of condemnation created a siege mentality within the Trump camp, solidifying their conviction.
Read the same for Brexit, the Remain side failing to utilise the testimony of economists when it became clear most people were focussed on the practical. Try to scare them, and they question your motives. Insult potential allies and they turn their backs for good. Scream ‘bigot’ a thousand times and it loses its stigma.
What never loses its power is a reasoned and sound rebuttal. The absence of such has birthed post-truth as ideological models of reality go unchallenged. Were we to rediscover the verisimilitude of the great debates, it would at least create a dialogue where currently there is merely spittle.
At the end of 2016, PolSoc and the Debating Society co-chaired a panel discussion regarding free speech on campus and, though the house wasn’t packed, it made for vigorous discussion. Beyond the odd snarky remark and non-sequitur, it was well argued, diverse enough to serve a purpose.
It also broached a very significant point, harking back to a hot topic months before when a motion to introduce political neutrality was presented to Stirling’s Student Union. While the motion was overwhelmingly defeated, the vastly outnumbered incumbents still had to endure verbal abuse and straw man retorts, outrage inspired by conjecture. While dire, such a reaction has a foundation, indicative of a lack of practice fielding reasoned argument and open discourse. A small example it may be, but microcosms are notoriously diminutive, and it perhaps holds the key.
This writer would urge any on campus who take stock in the Union’s actions to consider participating in the discussions and votes, as a greater variety of voices would be heard, and your peers would be strengthened by the exertion. It is this method which represents the most rational means towards reversing the most noxious of political trends and, at the very least, should rid us of some of the hostility by replacing shouts with ripostes.
The alternative would be polar strands of totalitarianism, a historically-tested guarantee of misery and death as the middle ground becomes a toxic wasteland, no longer fit for living or for a meeting place. To avoid bleaker years, the dialogue and debate must rule supreme, lest we be divided still, for more of the same malignancy.