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Tag Archives: news values

Ordinary citizens appear increasingly to be democracy’s and indeed decent, civilised behaviour’s last line of defence. In their day-to-day interactions it now falls to citizens to struggle against those who promote and support barbarism. That is to say, if it was ever sensible to remain silent – to opt for a quiet life – while someone in the company – perhaps a friend or family member – spouts nonsense or savagery, it’s no longer a safe option; democracy and decency are now under too much pressure.

During a recent BBC Panorama documentary on the rise of racist attacks in the aftermath of the Brexit poll, a social scientist made a telling point: it’s not that the racists have majority support; it is that they think they have.*

Those who hold and express vile views seldom if ever face an adverse reaction in social and family circles. Too few people or perhaps no one at all expressly disagrees with them, tells them that they should be ashamed of themselves or refuses to socialise with them. Moreover, they are allowed to take part in routine conversation and banter without reference to the knowledge that their most basic views are an affront to civilisation. To borrow a term from communication and media studies, racist thugs are being normalised. **

The same failing has resulted in the current friction over what men can and cannot say to and about women. There are those who hold that despicable behaviour is part of routine banter. The thing is, they are telling the truth and it is the truth because no one in their circle says otherwise. Colleagues, associates, friends and family – knowing their views and character – are willing to socialise with them, are willing to normalise them.

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A key moment for me came some years ago on a bus queue of all places. I tend to talk to strangers. I engaged when the person beside me started on about what was wrong with Irish society. Soon it became apparent that immigrants were the cause of Ireland’s problems. It got worse: each race, it was contended, brought particular failings and these were enthusiastically listed. Certainly I was shocked to be talking to an extremist but more shocking was that someone so extreme would be open with a complete stranger. When I gathered myself and began to argue, it was her turn to be shocked. Clearly she was unaccustomed to questioning and contradiction. She fell silent shortly before the bus arrived.

Thinking about the incident afterwards, I was made despondent by the idea that those views had become utterly routine, that in this woman’s circles her views were accepted as ordinary. My belief now while still chilling, is a little better. Yes, her views are held by many – far too many – but she is mistaken in thinking that she enjoys near universal approval. She is lulled into assuming approval by the absence of confrontation, contradiction and criticism and by being made welcome into the company of decent people.

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Tolerance is now so pervasively misunderstood that public discourse is endangered. “I’m entitled to my opinion” has come to mean, “I’m entitled to say what I like without having to answer for it.” An added variant is, “I’m entitled to talk about drains and football without mention of my more basic, noxious views.” Too many thinking people now consider trenchant argument to be impolite. They flop into an effete silence while racists, misogynists, liars, conspiracy theorists, even supporters of war crimes, and others with similarly vile views move and operate as if they were normal citizens of a decent and democratic society.

There might have been a time when journalists were expected to act but nowadays they are almost completely in thrall to news values and have for the most part left the field of struggle over fundamental values. They prefer to report comments on current issues without reference to a speaker’s basic and sometimes vile views; bluntly, they are activists in the process of normalisation.

That leaves the last line of defence: the thinking, participative citizen, aware of three things: i) that democracy is recent and fragile ii) that it depends on effective public discourse; and iii) that beyond issues, current affairs, even the differences between conservatives, liberals and socialists, there is a small number of shared positions that mark out democracy, civilised behaviour and human decency. That is now threatened and quiet politeness is complicity.

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* About 22mins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yetFgoAkrGE

** qui tacet consentire videtur

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