I spent last weekend watching tv and by the end of Sunday I’d learnt more about wedding gown design from a double episode of “Say Yes to the Dress” than I did about the world from any of the six news broadcasters boasting to deliver “the whole truth, the whole time”.
In the aftermath of the stabbing of the mayor of Gdansk, Poland’s public life looked in the mirror and declared we’d end hate speech and raise the level of public debate. Journalists seized on the globally urgent idea and zealously reported on the questions politicians began to ask: How do we speak to each other? What’s acceptable? Where’s the line between criticism and bullying? What’s a crime and what’s just bad taste? Questions as relevant as they are urgent and as complex as they are demanding though perhaps asked more to distract from the stink of the gutter than to unclog it.
Public debate is what allows us to understand the mechanics of what goes on around us. It shows us the relationship between our choice to recycle and the amount of plastic in our oceans. It explains how our choice not to vaccinate a child puts at risk other children and some adults. It reveals whether a t-shirt made in China sold for ten pounds in London is indeed a bargain and whether having one day a week when shops are closed is a useful idea.
Public debate is a modern-day dance that reminds us of our interdependence. It helps us understand parts of life that might not affect us directly yet still demand our understanding and, occasionally, legislation. Without it, we’ll never be equal to our neighbours.
We might not like our neighbours. They might not look, earn or move the way we do; they might pray at different times and cook with different spices. They might altogether live in a world that we find a little implausible, but public debate lets us in on this world and helps us understand why this world is important as well as how it needs to be protected. It works the other way around, too. Public debate allows us to invite our neighbours into our home without having to make tea for a stranger.
Public debate also reminds us that, despite what we’re hearing every day, there are no heroes and there are no villains in civic democracies. As names on state letterheads change every four or five years, these names, glorified or vilified depending on our choice of broadcaster, have marginal impact on systemic change. The most powerful legislation comes out of change in attitudes, but no legislation can affect the way we think, feel or experience the world.
After a tragic event, Poland took a moment to reflect and reconsider. It was a brief moment, perhaps too brief for some, including journalists, who, though they continue to call for a better way, seem to have forgotten they themselves are part of the solution. Unfortunately, while we the citizens have some impact over the composition of our parliaments, we have no sway over the composition of our newsrooms. And though the names on state letterheads might change in the coming months, the names in the country’s bylines will not and thus bickering will continue.
Bickering has replaced reporting the world over a while ago already. More recently, we the citizens were offered an explanation dangerous in its plausibility: Fake news. For a moment, we were all swayed by the very tempting vision of a force outside news broadcasters, a force greater than any and all of us, a force that can bamboozle us into believing whatever they want us to believe.
But would fake news be a problem in a world of “the whole truth, the whole time”? If evening news served us facts and late-night punditry offered analysis and insights, would we really have this much trouble telling logic from magic?
One could argue that mainstream journalists just tell us what goes on and what goes on isn’t very much at all. What is a journalist to do but repeat a fake claim someone has already let loose and everyone else has already retweeted?
But civic societies are complex systems whose functioning depends on fine-tuning of all inter-dependent elements. There are no heroes and there are no villains but there certainly are troublemakers and troublemakers are like children who swear: they don’t understand what they just said, but everyone suddenly woke up, let’s do it again and again and again! Perhaps repeating and dwelling on statements that are hateful or border on magical thinking is like scolding swearing toddlers.
Raising the level of public debate isn’t easy and it won’t happen overnight. It will not arrive with the new parliament and it will not be delivered with the new president. To examine what’s happening around us requires knowledge, research and insight, which require time and energy that’s currently consumed by bickering. We need to develop new skillsets if we’re ever to move ahead; skillsets that start with interpersonal skills that allow us to diffuse or redirect someone’s (usually our own) anger, disappointment and entitlement all the way through to subject-matter knowledge that allows us to interrogate and qualify the details of particular problems and policies.
In all this, one might notice that maintaining a nation is like choosing a wedding dress where interests, tastes and expectations need to be balanced to set the tone for how the guests are to behave. One can never please everyone, but get it right and it’s a night to remember. Get it wrong and you're stuck with the bickering of the bitter.
Zuzanna Fiminska is a writer filling the world with great conversations and many points of view. Her work was published in Mslexia, Other Stories, Coil Magazine, Cecile's Writers, Cadaverine and others. She's the creator Project Neighbours.