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18 Oct 16

Sad State of Public Debate

Srdjan Garcevic

The tradition of respectful public debate is all but dead in Serbia and across the region, and what little still exists is being slowly eroded.

 This lack of respect towards the general public is sadly becoming the norm. Photo: Flickr/Southern Arkansas University.

One of the things that I miss the most having returned from the UK is BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Today is a morning dose of punchy coverage of daily topics spanning politics, arts and science, which, for additional nerd-appeal, often features guests with opposing, informed opinions on any issue discussed.

The programme’s presenters, more or less gently, prod their guests on every lapse of logic, fact or lack of clarity, occasionally pitting guests’ arguments against one another for the listeners’ benefit and pleasure.

Although the atmosphere can get a little shouty, it is always respectful in a jolly, cheerful (stereotypically) British way. Listeners come out of it more informed, their views broadened, occasionally with some schadenfreude from listening to a guest have his ego bruised.

Unfortunately, in Serbia and the region that sort of show is barely imaginable as the tradition of respectful public debate is almost non-existent, and the little that does exist is being slowly eroded.

A worryingly large portion of the media shows shockingly little respect to those who do not share their views. Ad-hominem attacks and name calling are the order of the day.

Tabloids routinely denigrate those they disagree with. There was a notorious case in June 2016, when Serbian tabloid Informer accused a swathe of liberal activists, and even the US and EU ambassadors to Serbia, of plotting to overthrow the government.

Last year, the same publication featured a story that was found to be false of a bizarre sex scandal involving the current Croatian president Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic.

Informer published several photos of a half-naked woman on its front page, claiming it was Grabar Kitarovic. The tabloid said the photos were taken in Brussels at a time when she was allegedly having an affair with a Serbian diplomat. The top of the cover said: ‘18+ World Exclusive.’

It is commonplace for someone to be described as a traitor and conspirator against the state (even some BIRN staff commonly feature on such lists). Politicians and activists across the political spectrum participate in name calling, with almost no insult left un-hurled at their opponents.

Hyperbole trumps truth

Less dramatic but potentially more insidious is the general disregard for facts and logic in public discourse, even outside the usually muddy realm of political campaigning.

Facts are not only wilfully misrepresented but often manufactured, so much so that it takes the valiant efforts of groups like Istinomer, a website dedicated to fact-checking political statements, to clear the waters somewhat.

Instead of facts and coherent explanations, there are superlatives: the government often labels all its own efforts “historic”, while the opposition sees almost any government policy and act as dire, even if said act is consistent with their own ideology and past actions.

Even when the public requests information and explanations, its demands are too often left unanswered. There are many examples but one is the fact we are yet to hear any more about the electoral fraud that was allegedly perpetrated during the 2012 presidential elections, a story the ruling Serbian Progressive Party promised to tell us more than four years ago.

This lack of respect towards the general public is sadly becoming the norm.

There is little appreciation of the idea that even when one is demonstrably right, it does not mean that one is exempt from scrutiny or the need to explain oneself to the public, ideally in simple terms. Albeit tiresome, this is a prerequisite for participating in and fostering public debate.

Sadly, even some liberal activists in Serbia often forget this and just decry their opponents, and occasionally the wider public, as intrinsically opposed to them and unenlightened, and offer no arguments for their assertions when asked.

With the increased ability to select our own news sources and debating partners on social media, many of us are content in our own constructed echo chambers. We seem to be only looking to make a bigger bang with an ever more exaggerated assertion, rather than constructively challenge and scrutinise.

Global decline

Unfortunately, it seems that it is increasingly a bad time for public debate across the globe.

The US political system has become so farcically polarised that personal attacks rather than policy debate has become the norm in this year’s presidential race – with evermore fanciful conspiracy theories deployed by major parties.

Even in the UK, the land of the Today programme, the situation is getting worse.

Former Tory cabinet minister, Michael Gove, infamously quipped while campaigning for Brexit that “Britain has had enough of experts” when confronted with opposing views. Brexiteers went on to victory in the EU referendum last June, often repeating claims that were demonstrably wrong.

Sadly, without a culture of public debate, without access to facts, logic and respect for both the audience and the opposing side, freedom and equality are imperilled. People shouting past each other, unchecked by logic and fact, are not too far away from beating each other up if the opportunity arises, as there is no way to find common ground.

One way for us to make sure that what is left of Serbia’s culture of public debate remains is for the country’s chattering and twittering classes to ruthlessly hold themselves and others to a higher standard. We need to call out and demand explanations for obscure statements, non-sequiturs and dramatic labels, especially when coming from those we agree with.

Ultimately, we need to see those we are debating with, on our side or the other, as well as those listening, as worthy of respect, time and effort – otherwise what is the point of talking and writing?

Srdjan Garcevic is a writer and a founder of The Nutshell Times blog.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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