Confrontational brutality impoverishes our common life

By Jill Segger
May 4, 2010

The binary fabric of our politics may have been stretched by the resurgence of the Lib Dems and by general dissatisfaction with, and creative responses to, the “old politics” model But there remains an almost Manichaean strand of seeking right/wrong; black/white; good/bad in our political discourse to the exclusion of all that is thoughtful and gracious.

The adversarialism which works well enough in enabling democratic groupings to hammer out differing views of society and to provide the electorate with sufficient ideological consistency to make informed and moral choice possible, also lends itself to pointless confrontation and to a failure on the part of politicians to acknowledge that their opponents may have some good policies or that they may themselves have made mistakes or changed their views. It also plays a large part in the kind of unintelligent, un-nuanced aggression of the type displayed by Andrew Neil and described so tellinglly by Pascale Palmer in Mainstreaming Climate Change.

During the last week, the stupefyingly self-satisfied Stephen Nolan of Radio 5 has twice evinced the same kind of totally unsubtle determination to reduce a complex question to an over-simplified “yes/no” response. It is significant that on both occasions, his victims were female politicians: Harriet Harman and Jackie Smith. I have no particular respect for either of these women, but they both not only showed more intellectual subtlety than Nolan, but also considerably more poise and courtesy. It sounded like bullying of the lowest order. It certainly added nothing to clarity or understanding.

I am in favour of demanding and well-focused questioning of politicians. We have all heard them spinning out of meaningless responses in order to avoid answering a difficult question. But most of us know that there are many issues - both political and non-political - which are not reducible to clear cut binary possibilities. A good point at which to remind ourselves of John Rawls' definition of government - “ a duty to adjudicate where interests collide”. A determination to vent personal animosity, score points and enforce a concept that nuance in the mouth of a politician must mean untruth, is a grave disservice to the cause of truth. It also undermines our common humanity. We are all creatures who bleed, weep, rejoice and suffer.

When that slips from sight, as it must have done in the mind of Tory councillor John Hills, who shouted at Gordon Brown in Eltham on Sunday “there's a car – fall under it”, then surely it is time to re-examine where this confrontational brutality is taking us.

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