Quality of our debate determines outcomes

The title of this post may seem esoteric and academic but it is one of the most important factors in determining our quality of life in Ireland. And I don’t mean some intellectual or abstract quality – I mean things like the lifestyle we live, the quality of our health service and the rights we enjoy.

In Ireland, debate for its own sake has always come second to winning the argument. The loudest, shoutiest, most insistent voice gets its way almost all the time. Making sense does not have to be part of that volume of self-righteousness.

Similarly, in terms of stifling debate, we are a nation that abhors dissent from the consensus. There are things that cannot be said – especially on radio or television, even if everyone knows those things are true.

You cannot speak, for example, about the criminality of certain groups, or make the link between certain areas or families with crime unless you frame it in the context of these criminals being ‘forced’ into crime by their circumstances.

That prejudice is designed to prevent ‘prejudice’ and every radio and TV presenter knows that should someone stray into that area, they will be quickly corrected.

The weird and strange thing about this is that when we stifle debate on radio and TV, we don’t even have to be partisan about it. That is – we often do it out of habit and custom, rather than in an attempt to mislead the audience or to win an argument.

We have this situation now where there has to be equal and balanced debate on the Equality in Marriage referendum due to legislation insisting on parity in all referendum debates. That would be a terrific thing in, say, Zimbabwe or North Korea, but in Ireland, it’s simply ridiculous.

I am in favor of giving (as I see it) gay people the right to get married in much the same way as straight people, and I find it very difficult to see how anyone would argue against that. Certainly, if they were going to argue about it, they wouldn’t frame it in the terms I just have.

It would be all about ‘protecting the family’ (whatever that means), and ‘ensuring a future for our children’ (the eternal cry of Maude Flanders) or some other such nonsense. Even when the arguments are patently ridiculous, TV and radio presenters do not deride them as such, preferring to have a good ‘barney’ on subjects that are are one-sided as “Is the world flat?” or “Was John the best Beatle?”.

Another ‘argument’ conducted recently on Irish radio was that of man who was complaining about zero hours contracts with Dunnes Stores and how if he signed off the dole for an agreement that he would get say, 15 hours work a week from Dunnes, he would be happy. The problem was that they sometimes gave him only an hour or two – or no work at all – and this meant he hadn’t enough to live on and feed himself.

You would imagine that everyone would appreciate his plight. We all pay his dole. We all (presumably) would like to see him get a job or an income, but if he loses his dole and then a private company fails on its promise to provide him with the hours they have already agreed, then, I think we’d all say, that’s the company’s responsibility and they should pay up.

Well, not exactly all of us.

While this man is explaining his situation, Joe Duffy releases the lions in the form of another man who attacks and abuses the first man. “I’ll bet you’re not an employer” was one of his choice lines as he interrupted and harangued the first man. Oh please!

It’s a stupid line of argument – obviously people who are on the dole and getting by on a few hours work from Dunnes Stores are unlikely to be employers. But it wasn’t just the argument itself, but the shouting down of the the other viewpoint that unnerved me. How does someone get so riled up that they feel defending Dunnes Stores is the only way to be heard?

Do we have too much pointless argument?

RTE and the mainstream media have a part in all of this. A year or so ago I suggested to The Examiner that they initiate a debate in the area of Ireland’s drug laws – particularly cannabis – as it would be of interest to their readers.

They eventually did this last week with a debate in their pages between Dr Chris Luke (an Emergency Room physician based in Cork) and Senator James Heffernan.

Dr Luke makes the point that the ‘horrible’ street violence we witness in the streets today is caused by the “ABC’s” – a combination of alcohol, benzodiazepines and cannabis. And that is probably true. But while Dr Luke is medically correct, we all know from daily experience that if you remove alcohol from that equation, the violence is also removed.

It’s part of the conservative prejudice to link cannabis with alcohol and suggest that they both have some effect in causing violence. They don’t. You might as well say that denim is related to violence because it is also often present when the alcohol/violence paradigm occurs. Or corduroy. Or cotton.

When this level of debate occurs, sadly this is where it ends. The case of an elderly man being sent to jail for possession is not considered.

Alcohol is legal, cannabis is not and the fear of unleashing another drug into the community is the uppermost fear.

Of course, the drug is already there. It’s being used extensively. The real question is whether we want to waste time, resources and effort criminalizing those use it.

The cliche is well over-used – “We welcome a debate”, but we don’t really. We welcome an argument and a row, and forcefully putting our opinion across. We don’t really listen, or want to listen to the other side.

Debate in Ireland is a one-way street.

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