• Sunday, June 16, 2024
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A prescription for 2022 – ‘Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument’

A prescription for 2022 – ‘Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument’

This column, last week, in its last incarnation for the year 2021, was devoted entirely to Desmond Mpilo Tutu, a man who carried no arms and threw no stones in street demonstrations – though he joined a few in his time.

Although he was a well-read man, he often spoke directly from the heart. One of his famous quotes says

‘Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument’.

Desmond Tutu was a small-statured man who spent all his life battling against giants, literally and metaphorically. He lived to see his argument prevail against the giants, even in the face of ever-present danger to his life.

Loud intemperate argumentation, filled with, abuse, invective and threat, has become the order of the day in public discourse across the world. The explosive expansion of social media, and the power and reach it has given for ‘citizen journalism’, has been a major driver of this process. It has led to the growth and increasing power of ‘populist’ right-wing political movements in Europe and the Americas.

Donald Trump rode on the back of such a wave to win the Presidency of the United States of America. He made abuse and name-calling – including use of nicknames such as ‘Sleepy Joe’ and ‘Crooked Hillary’ for opponents into staples of American public discourse.

Picked up and amplified by millions of passionate supporters, it had the remarkably strong effect of whipping up anger among supporters and howling down anyone inclined to argue against the ‘popular’ narrative. They picked on convenient targets, such as foreigners, blacks, people of non-Christian religions, such as Muslims and Jews, people with disabilities, and other popular ‘betenoires’ such as gays and abortion activists.

The same tactics of high noise and low-quality argument has worked remarkably in advancing the fortunes of the extreme right in places as diverse as Austria, the Philippines and Brazil

The same tactics of high noise and low-quality argument has worked remarkably in advancing the fortunes of the extreme right in places as diverse as Austria, the Philippines and Brazil.

Read also: The legacy of Desmond Tutu

It is easy to assume that the use of noise in the promotion of weak arguments is exclusive to conservative ‘populists’. Not true. Sadly, one of the more bizarre features of the present-day public space is that ‘idealists’ and ‘social activists’ have insidiously slipped into the attitude of employing the same tactics to advance ‘progressive’ causes.

More and more, there is a ‘take it or leave it’ and an ‘us and them’ aspect to their agitation for ‘good’ causes. ‘Progressives’ condemn and harass writers who say things they don’t like. They demonstrate to ban speakers who make contrary arguments from speaking on university campuses. They de-market companies whose CEOs express unpopular positions on abortion, feminist or gay rights, for example. A word against a ‘progressive’ cause, and the speaker could be out of a cushy job.

The poor citizen finds himself crushed between tyrannies – right and left.

In Nigeria, a couple of quick examples may illustrate the universality of this sinister trend. The ENDSARS protest was the most relevant, and most significant youth-led cause in a generation. It seemed poised to begin to achieve at least some of its lofty dreams.

A sitting governor conveyed protesters demands to his principal, a man normally perceived as hide-bound and reactionary. The principal immediately agreed to the demands, proscribing the hated group and making a show of setting up mechanisms to implement changes demanded. Perhaps he was gritting his teeth, but he did the optics.

At that point, a basic strategic imperative required that the struggle moves to the next stage of the script. Only there was no script. Just more of the same.

The social media inhabited by youthful avatars till today speak with perfect conviction about a murderous government and concede no learning points concerning the need to have identified leadership and end-to-end strategic thinking. Anybody who raises a nuanced argument is a thief and a robber. No lessons have been learned that may impact the conduct of inevitable future protests.

The recent unfortunate death of a young student after allegations of bullying in a school boarding house supplies another example. So great has been the popular ire that the school was shut by fiat and remains shut to this day, dislocating the lives of students and staff. The outrage is based on a single narrative that has gone viral and morphed in the traffic.

First it was bullies beating the poor boy to a pulp. Then it was cult members seeking to forcibly induct him. Socially conscious, upstanding citizens are conducting a public lynching in newspapers and social media. Someone suggested the school be bulldozed to the ground. Some have advised that boarding schools be cancelled in their entirety.

In such a fevered atmosphere, it is difficult for anyone to ask that all the facts be established before judgement, or to query such minor details as a father taking his sick child from school and ferrying him hundreds of kilometres over some of the most terrible roads in the country, before finally getting to the hospital.

Bullying is a universal scourge every society is fighting against. Surely anyone found to have genuinely done wrong or acted in negligence after due and competent investigation, including in this case, post-mortem examination, and toxicology, should face the law.

But the reason alumni of the best schools – the Kings Colleges and Government Colleges are raising funds to rebuild their boarding schools is that they recognize that, well run, a boarding house is an ideal environment for youthful character development. Period.

A slight modification to Desmond Tutu’s dictum, as a working message for 2022. Reduce your voice, improve your information, and improve your argument. Then you may do some good.

The risk for ‘progressives’ is more dire than for right-wing populists. In America, a failure by ‘progressives’ to heed the Tutu dictum may lead a majority to resolve to hold their noses and vote, again, for Donald Trump. In Nigeria it may simply help to entrench and perpetuate the structures, attitudes and entities that all agree must change.