One often heard complaint about the public debate from left-wingers is that right-wing commentators have over the years undermined the fair-mindedness of public debate. The alleged viciousness and partisanship of Fox News is an example often cited by left commentators.
There are two flaws with this view. First, it assumes that public debate has always been a civilised affair. Not quite so, as a brief look into the history of presidential campaigns in the US can tell. Deeply personal attacks bordering on insults and offence have been the conventional fare of many candidates for the highest, and presumably most dignified, office in the land since the 19th century. This is the more astonishing since the runner-up in the electoral college vote was to become the Vice President. Competitors for the highest office had to reconcile their differences and swallow their pride as they took office at the same time. Presumably what worked back then, cant be insurmountable now.
Yet, there is also the claim that only rightwingers are to blame for the deterioration of public oratory decorum. This does not ring true either. Tune into any left wing radio channel (thousand of those are available on the web) in the US and you will encounter a shocking amount of personal hatred and vitriol poured over anybody who does not share their view.
But you may also look closer to home and find some evidence that derogatory speech is not a preserve of the right wing media. Anybody remember the vilification of George Bush? He was called stupid amongst many other things, which are hardly examples of dignified debating practices!
In fact a preferred tactic of the left wing commentators is to denigrate centre right views as loony or bereft of any logic while at the same time questioning their motives. So while Ed Milliband becomes the white knight of the righteous cause, Cameron is labelled a traitor to the lives of ordinary people and worse.
It is a strategy that effectively denies others the legitimacy of their views by associating their convictions and beliefs with madness and lunacy. So pro-life views become obnoxious, while pro-choice views are the natural expression of reasonableness.
While I do not have much sympathy for tendentious news and comments from the extreme right in the US, I equally do not think people like Polly Toynbee or George Monbiot are the pinnacle of reasonableness pointing the finger at others and, at the same time, calling centre-right politicians with legitimate views about gay marriage, or abortion ‘fruitcakes’ and worse.
The quality of our public discourse relies on moderation from all sides. Questioning the motives of our political classes can only lead to political apathy from a population that is already tired of ideological trench warfare.
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