“When you hear someone – or you – talking about who is right, their primary concern is about power. When they talk about what is right, then you’re talking about values.”
That’s the phrase that popped into my head when I was thinking about why discourse, the dialogue of ideas, has given way to the slanging match that so often ends in threats, and I include name calling in my definition of a threat. Have the social media caused this ya boo sucks way of talking with our world or is it simply the ideal medium for the way we have been taught to think? After all, even in the heyday of newspapers did we ever have millions of readers clamouring to comment on the pages of the New York Times, the Guardian or Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, where some semblance of thoughtfulness was demanded by editors? The social media are perfect for “who is right”. Not only because of the (perceived) anonymity of those commenting but because there is no need to think. There is only a need to take sides. Read most, if not all, of the threads on Twitter and you will discover someone who will insert him or herself with a variation of “I’m right and you’re wrong, arsehole.” And that sentence all by itself means nothing more than “I have no need to think about what you said because you are an arsehole and I am not. You may be Pope, prime minister, president or a chief Brexiteer but you have no power over me. I can take you down again and again simply by not thinking about what you’re saying.” And, of course when people with authority and power join in and refuse to accept any evidence apart from their own infallibility then the Rights and Rights line up against each other, identifying the enemy not just as Obama, Trump, Putin, Netanyahu or Khaled Mashal but as Liberals, Democrats, Republicans, Russians, Israelis, Jews, Palestinians, Arabs and Moslems.
We mass allies around us and range them against our massed enemies. And we know as little about either our allies and our enemies. Why? Because we know nothing about their values. Because those values are not what we have been squabbling over. If they were, we would notice very quickly that the Liberals, Republicans, Israelis and Palestinians hold many differing values within their communities; some of them perhaps close to our own. What we have been doing is jostling for power, positioning ourselves with those blocs that we think – we imagine – can provide us with the greater influence. Why else would Alabama Evangelists back a man accused of sexually assaulting teenage girls in the 70’s? Why else was the Brexit campaign conducted with so little information and impact evaluation on either side? Because ethics,ideas, justness, what is right – were not important. Power – winning – was. And history shows it can only get worse if we do not discuss what is right. If we do not cross the battle lines to understand both the values that bind us and the foundations of the values that divide us. The “enemy” morphs from, Clinton or Trump to Democrats and Republicans, and then to gender, race, religion and nationality.
So, is there a way out of this? Back to that phrase at the top of the page.
Talking about who is right is about power. Talking about what is right is about values. By “who” I mean individuals insisting that they, their countries, political parties, religions or races -or in fact any branded entity – are right. By “what” I mean ideas, values, morality, sense of justness. The former cuts short discussion. It’s the ideal arena for ya boo sucks. After all, if I tell you that you are wrong and I am right, then you have a limited number of choices. You could walk away; or you could tell me, and the world, that as I am a buffoon, whatever I believe is invalid; or (inversely) since you have the backing of the British people, Christianity, Islam or the Koch Brothers you have the authority of credibility on your side. All of those are about power – even walking away.
You have one more choice. You could say, “Tell me…”
You could say, “Tell me something about what is right for us all about your stance. Tell me something about how you formed the ideas behind your belief that you (or your allies) are right. Tell me about your values, what is important to you. And why you think they could be important for me.”
There’s nothing like “Tell me..” to make people think about what they are doing and who they are. There’s nothing like “Tell me…” to make two people realise they are human. And incidentally, “Tell me about why you think your belief is good for us all” is well short of 140 characters.