Ian Boyne, Contributor
The nation had hardly absorbed the latest round of Everald 'Go to Hell' Warmington's crassness, crudeness and boorishness before it was faced with the dramatic explosion between K.D. Knight and Justice Minister Dorothy Lightbourne, who charged that Knight had told her 31 years ago, "Every Labourite fi dead."
The tension and antipathy between the two prominent politicians had been played out many times before the nation, but Lady Dorothy volunteered last Thursday afternoon that its roots go all the way back to 1980. From that time, she told the Manatt/Dudus commission of enquiry last Thursday, she has had nothing to do with him. Even before that far-reaching face-off on Thursday, I had been struck by what many have taken lightly: That the minister has not addressed Mr Knight once, every time addressing, "Mr Chairman," and even refusing to look at him.
This, to me, is no joking matter, and while technically the minister was addressing the commission, the level of disrespect and utter disregard shown to another human being - and a Senate colleague at that - is absolutely unacceptable. What are we teaching our young people? What is the sense of a national values and attitudes campaign if our elders can show such contempt to fellow citizens and such lack of civility?
For our children's sake, we must take a stand on these issues, cost it what it will. There are some things which just don't meet the minimum standard of decency and we must never compromise on those things. Mr Knight has also been less than respectful in his tone and manner, too, and I myself have drawn attention to his temptation to rudeness. But consistently showing contempt for him by not even looking at him and totally ignoring him, save to answer his questions because the minister can do no better - and having this broadcast to the entire world - is just not good enough. It is not a laughing or trivial matter. It goes to the heart of respect and civility.
This country will continue to go deeper in the abyss because few have the guts to call a spade a spade and to label incivility for what it is, once the person is in their party or their in-group. Right and wrong for us is dependent on who is doing it. For too long, we sat and allowed our parliamentarians to behave like hooligans, to trace off one another, to even shout expletives to one another and yet take the 'a nuh nutten' attitude. We even thought some of it was cute. We have normalised abhorrent behaviour. But because we are so tribalised, our politicians get away with it. We have sown to the wind and are now reaping the whirlwind. But what disgusts me is our wringing our hands and wondering how we have come to this.
How we have come to this, where Mr Everald Warmington can again be vulgar to our journalists, safe in the knowledge that he is 'cool' and nothing will happen to him? Last Sunday, when I urged K.D. Knight to show some respect to the office of the prime minister, if not to the person in that office, I was roundly cursed out and abused by many on the Gleaner website and in personal emails to me, charging that I am merely singing for my supper and acting like a prostitute in service of my master.
When I was urging the PM last week to be cool, to take his bruises if they come without exploding, I was told I was mixing up my roles. Yet, to his credit, K.D. Knight exchanged his usual pleasantries with me at the commission last Thursday and Patrick Atkinson greeted me warmly. It takes courage to go against the tide of groupthink and tribalism in this politically balkanised society. It had to come to this. We have tolerated for too long crassness in public discourse: the attack on personalities rather than ideas; the demonising and dehumanising; the ostracism for not following the particular party line; persecution for daring to be different; and victimisation for not cowering to intimidation. Where are the voices in civil society?
I don't believe that cross-examination has to be as disrespectful, demeaning in tone and disparaging to be surgical, pointed and devastating. Knight, I am absolutely sure, does not need that. The man has proven himself to be an absolute master at his craft. The man has an unconquerable logic, an almost irresistible force of argumentation, a relentless and intellectually ruthless corralling of information to crush home his point. His sheer brilliance last Thursday, for example, will now be lost to this kerfuffle in the afternoon.
How he built his case to show that the minister's concern for constitutional rights was apparently not consistent was an absolute intellectual delight. All of that is now buried under the rubble of 'cass-cass', and a 31-year build-up of resentment and bitterness.The deterioration in our public discourse is seen not only in the interactions of our politicians. It is seen in the press, on call-in shows, on talk-shows where personal invective, name-calling, insult-trading and personal abuse are the order of the day and the preferred ways of 'debating'.
I have determined that I, for one, will make my statement by not contributing to this dumbing down of discourse. I never swap insults with mean-spirited critics or those who engage in ad hominem attacks. And even when critics don't hurl abuse, I so honour freedom of expression that I am generally inclined to simply leave them to have their say without a comment.
Let a hundred flowers bloom. Being thin-skinned is not a good thing and my orientation in Stoic philosophy has helped me considerably.
The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus, writing in The Enchiridion (AD 135), says: "Some things are in our control and others not. Things not in our control are reputation and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions." People's opinion of you is entirely out of your control, except where your actions might influence it.
Epictetus further advises that concerning things not in our control, "Be prepared to say that it is nothing to you." This coarsening of sensibilities is not evident only in Jamaica. It is very much on display in the United States, too, where public discourse has become acrimonious, partisan, vitriolic. They are even killing one another now because of the deep partisanship.
In Europe, hate-speech legislation is threatening classic notions of freedom of expression, and in America, too, political correctness has become a ruse to mask intolerance of offensive ideas. Muslim extremists join forces ideologically with Christian fundamentalists in threatening free speech and labelling as infidels and agents of the devil those who disagree with them.
Some of the most bigoted, hateful and prejudiced people are religious people, imprisoned by their dogmas and certitudes. Our civilisation is threatened by totalitarians of all kinds - bourgeois, Christian, Muslim, nationalist and communist (The Beijing Consensus).
Freedom of thought
We need to get back to US Justice Holmes' wonderfully cryptic dictum: "Freedom for the thought we hate." We need to respect diversity of views. If Warmington had that respect, he would find it easier to have good manners. If the Jamaica Labour Party and People's National Party tribalists internalised that, they would have less resentment to those who differ from them. I consider it such a colossal waste when I see intelligent men and women give over their minds to political parties. I am a political agnostic who is uneasy among political 'True Believers' whose party has all the answers.
I take the position of that first-class anarchist intellectual, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chris Hedges (Death of the Liberal Class), who says the point of politics is not to see how we can get good people into power, but how we can restrain bad people from doing much harm!
We need to develop what philosopher Karl Popper calls 'the open society'. I again commend the words of that great American jurist, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr: "The best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market ... . I think we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death."
How do we develop a truly civil society? I believe education has a great role. But I don't mean education in math, science and technology, as our prime minister has been singing. We have had, to disastrous results, a too mechanistic and instrumental view of education. We need to teach philosophy from primary school. Children need to learn how to reason so they won't be easily manipulated. They need to be exposed to various ways of life and cultures so they can develop tolerance and respect for diversity. They need to break out of their cocoon.
Democracy has to be built on the foundation of civic education. I agree with former US President John Adams in his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, as quoted in the book Freedom for the Thought We Hate: "Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people ... ." The more people are exposed to literature, philosophy (especially epistemology, scepticism and philosophy or religion), sociology and politics, the more we might succeed against the dogmatists and political cultists who have sway over many.
In a supremely well-argued essay in the September 2009 issue of Harper's magazine, Mark Slouka says, "What do we teach and why? We teach whatever contributes to the development of autonomous human beings; we teach that in order to expand the census of knowledgeable, reasoning, independent-minded individuals sufficiently familiar with the world outside themselves to lend their judgements compassion and breadth (and thereby contribute to the political life of the nation) ... ." He makes a passionate case for the privileging of the humanities in the essay titled Dehumanised: When Math and Science Rule the School.
Capitalist society, obsessed merely with gross national product and wealth creation, has lost its soul and has been failing to develop citizens; just consumers. To bring Jamaica back from the throes of incivility, crudeness and intolerance, we must commit to civic virtue.
Ian Boyne is a veteran media practitioner. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.