The nature of public discourse
July 03 12:00 AM
In the light of the recent passage of the Mixed Ownership Act, and the apparent public concern at its content, the following observations from the perspective of one who was supposedly most heavily lobbied as the crucial vote on the Bill, might be of interest:
- Compared to other high profile measures over the years, the level of public lobbying (letters, emails, electorate visits etc.) on this legislation was certainly no higher, and arguably much less than on similar occasions in the past. Only one constituent ever came to see me about the Bill, and I visited one other early in the year who wanted to talk about the issue. Of the letters and emails I received, between 90% and 95% came from people outside my electorate. Of the 40 or so messages received after the Bill’s passage, only 4 were from constituents. By contrast, I received considerably more emails, letters and visits from constituents on the demise of TVNZ 7, but both these measures were dwarfed by the reaction I received to Labour’s Electoral Finance Act, where the messages were predominantly from constituents and I was being bailed up in shops and streets to talk about it. However, all these examples pale into significance alongside the "smacking" legislation where the messages being received were literally running at hundreds per hours at the crescendo of that debate!
- The tenor of public discourse has changed. Even as recently as the Electoral Finance Act debate, barely 5 years ago, those contacting me to express their concern invariably produced considered arguments, only occasionally laced with vitriol and personal abuse. The tone started to deteriorate with the vehemence of opponents of the "smacking" legislation where personal abuse was far more commonplace, but reached a new peak during the debate on the Mixed Ownership Bill where only rarely did rational argument lace the vitriol and personal abuse. I am one of those who holds to the view that resort to personal abuse is the ultimate proof of absence of credible argument, which meant that most of the messages I received actually ended up being extremely counter-productive.
- The explosion of electronic communication undoubtedly explains much of the change in style, tone and volume of messages received on key issues like these. Its immediacy and comparative anonymity also makes intemperance and abuse far more likely. But thereby hangs its weakness – it is accordingly that much easier to ignore, as either manipulated or extreme.
Now, all of this raises legitimate question about the future nature of public discourse. The current system has clear limitations when it comes to producing a credible way forward, yet, in an open, democratic society, it is vital that the great issues of the day are properly and thoroughly debated. Debate is much more than just a public head-count of how many are for something, and how many are against, or the levelling of mindless abuse. Debate is about reason, and argument presented with fervour, coupled with an ability to hear what others are saying. It is not just some animalistic show of strength based around who can shout loudest and rudest. Sadly, however, that is the path we appear to be heading down to the detriment of public discourse. And reduced discourse means reduced democracy.