Archive | Culture RSS feed for this section

Ehh.. #SocialMedia alone not to blame for coarsening of political debates

27 Jun

JoCoxFlowersThis is my Broadsheet opinion piece from June 20th, written in the aftermath of the horrific murder of labour MP, Jo Cox. broadsheet.ie/ad-hominemphobia/


As people struggle to come to terms with how Jo Cox MP could be so brutally slain outside her constituency clinic, many have focused on the coarsening of public debate and the abuse, both actual and online, aimed at politicians.

Though there has undeniably been a coarsening of public debate in recent years, we should not delude ourselves that there was once a golden age when all political discussion was genteel and free from ad hominem attacks.

There wasn’t.

Politics has always been a rough trade where vigorous and full bodied exchanges are the order of the day. Take this robust response from Frank Aiken T.D. in Dáil Éireann in July 1959, which I found while doing some research on Irish diplomatic history.

Incensed by Fine Gael claims that he was too supportive of Chinese representation at the U.N. and that he had chosen to attend a U.N. meeting instead of the funeral of Pope Pius XII, Aiken, who was Foreign Minister at the time, fumed:

He [Deputy McGilligan] is a low type who would climb on the body of a dead Pope to have a crack at Fianna Fáil.

Can you imagine the memes if someone said that today? But blaming Social Media alone for the eroding of civility in public discourse, as some have done in recent days, is to miss a bigger point.

Of course there are armies of irresponsible anonymous online warriors out there ready to pour a stream of bile and abuse on anyone who disagrees with them or points out that their heroes have feet of clay.

They are on both the left and right. Indeed, some of the most illiberal vitriol can come from those styling themselves as liberal, but whose social media output is anything but.

There are lone wolves and there are organised hoards. Our own domestic example of the hoard are the Shinner-bots, a virtual battalion of anonymous trolls (with the emphasis on ‘anonymous’).

Within minutes of Gerry Adams being criticised online for his disgraceful ‘Django’ tweet, the Shinner-bots were insulting and lambasting anyone who dared to question the actions of the dear leader. Their goal: smother the critics by saying and posting anything necessary o shut down the discussion and drive their opponents offline.

Sadly, politicians and journalists, particularly female, come in for equally appalling treatment on social media. The attacks on journalists are probably more pernicious, as the aim is to influence their reporting not by weight of facts and debate, but by simple bullying.

But the point to remember is that the vast majority of people do not post or talk about politics on social media. Just in the same way as the majority of the people who vote for an individual TD do not contact them by email, letter or phone.

Most people are part of what Richard Nixon (OK, not the first name to leap to mind when talking about open dialogue) termed: “The Silent Majority”, the people who are following events, but who are not protesting, speaking out or expressing their political opinions beyond the ballot box or the odd discussion at home or in the pub.

Blaming the coarsening of debate on social media alone is akin to attributing the rise of Hitler to the invention of valve radio. It is a factor, particularly the facility for anonymous posting which certainly has helped the erosion of mutual respect in discussion, but there are other significant ones, including the dumbing down of political debate.

This dumbing down is practised by politicians and journalists alike.

In the 1968 U.S. presidential election the average candidate sound bite used on the TV evening news was 42 seconds. By the 2000 election, that had shrunk to about 7 seconds.

The trend was not limited to broadcast media. During the same period the average quote from a candidate appearing on the front page of the New York Times went from 14 lines to about 6.

We now do politics as if it was a skills test on a reality show: Your task is to set out how you will sort out Irish healthcare in 30 seconds… explain the rational for the UK remaining the EU in 140 characters.

Couple this rush to simplification with the urge for immediate commentary and analysis and you have a dangerous mix. In the days before social media, talk radio and rolling 24-hour news, politicians and journalists alike had the time to consider their responses and the space to expand on them.

Political analysis and political responses are now expected be immediate, hurried and brief. But what is the virtue of the immediate short response, be it in a radio interview or online?

If expecting a Minister to give their immediate gut response to a particular issue is now the norm, then how can we slam others for doing the same online, when they do it under their own name?

 

 

Some thoughts on the #LimerickCityofCulture debacle

6 Jan

Let’s get one thing clear at the outset: I have no in depth or insider knowledge of what has been going on with the Limerick City of Culture – or City of Vultures as some have christened it.

All I know is what I have read in the papers and on Twitter. In that regard, I suppose, I am very like the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan TD, who admitted on Radio last Sunday that he only knew what he had read in the papers. Doesn’t it make you feel good inside to know that the State’s money is being guarded so keenly?Limerick City of Culture

Looking at the whole debacle from the safe distance of South Dublin, it does appear to me to be an example of how resignation is not always the answer to a problem. An already bad situation has now been made considerably worse by not just one, but a whole series of resignations.

Contrary to the perceived wisdom of the past few years, if not decades, calling for someone’s head and demanding their resignation is not the solution to every problem.

As we are seeing in Limerick, instead of addressing a problem of governance, the whole debate surrounding who should and should not resign has moved the focus to a clash of personalities, even if the outworking of that clash has been entertaining to those of us outside Limerick.

While a resignation may offer a win to one side in a dispute, that victory is just Pyrrhic where the core issue is not addressed.

In the case of Limerick the sequence of resignations, starting with the Artistic Director’s and culminating with the Chief Executive’s (who I should declare is a highly regarded former colleague of mine) has only succeeded in having both sides in the dispute poking each other in the eye and undermining public confidence in what should have been an exciting time in Limerick.

Problems such as the lack of proper advanced planning and budgeting and transparency in the appointments have not been addressed. These issues persist, though not to such a degree that they are stopping the Limerick Year of Culture from proceeding, as it does have a publicised calendar of events for the coming months.

The net result of the resignations is a slew of bad publicity and a hiatus in administration while new personnel are properly appointed – what did that achieve?

Without doubt the individuals resigning did so for what they felt were genuine reasons – whether those resignations where “elective” or “unavoidable”.

“Elective” is the “I just cannot tolerate this any longer” approach where the person believes that resignation is their only remaining response to a problem, having exhausted all other options. Such resignations are often gauged to focus public attention on a major issue of governance, or as a protest against some major malfeasance.

The other, is where the resignation is “unavoidable” because public comment or media attention on some major issue or dispute has made it impossible for the person to reasonably remain in a position, it usually features the line: “it is now in the best interests of the organisation that I move on”.

While noble, do the Limerick resignations fall under these headings? Was there an initial “active” resignation precipitated by frustration at how things were being run – or did someone just peg their toys out of the pram at not getting their way?

Similarly was unavoidable resignation really unavoidable, or was their position untenable from the outset by virtue of the particular nature of the appointment process?

From this distance and with such piecemeal information to go on, I have no idea.

What I do know is that none of the resignations have achieved anything and that there are now four people out of work, each of whom could have contributed further to making the year a success.

Meanwhile the people in government who should be answering questions and acting speedily to undo the damage caused by their delays in 2012 and 2013 continue to act as if they were mere bystanders.