One of the distinctive marks of the ancient Greek civilization was its openness to reasoned discourse in the continuous search for truth symbolized by the Aeropagus: a place where ideas no matter how novel or esoteric could be entertained, analysed and critiqued; whether it be from Socrates or St. Paul. This openness to discourse remains a mark of societies who pride themselves as enlightened.
Judging from the manner in which the recent exchanges between the government spokespersons and prominent critics and the level of abrasiveness, vulgarity and egotism displayed on both sides one is forced to wonder whether we have forgotten or rather cast aside the idea of true discourse and settled for a brawl.
It must first be admitted that corruption in Nigeria, especially in government circles, still remains a cause for justified outrage. Corruption is a problem which in reality is more profound and the solutions more fundamental than we most times would like to think it is. It is only through true discourse that public anger will be properly channelled towards finding positive solutions. That public anger, unfortunately, has been dissipated (unfortunately by those in the forefront of public discourse) in point fingers and blaming the persons in power. These persons in power rather examine their conscience ridicule the motive of their critics. In the print media it is complaints without prescription. On social media where the limit on the number of characters seems to be equivalent to a limit on the depth of reflection, public discourse has descended into vulgarity and hooliganism. The bottom line is after all the hot air no one proposes solutions, no one even properly gets to understand the problem as the right questions are not asked. We remain rooted to the same spot not moving forward.
It seems timely, in the light of the flavour of current public discourse in Nigeria to call to mind again some qualities of matured and civilized public discourse. The first principle is that there is an element of truth in even the most erroneous point of view. The aim of any discourse is to attain the truth. The realization that our opponent’s view, no matter how mistaken, has a little bit of truth in it, is an important quality of a reasoned discourse. We must be willing to understand the other viewpoint in order to engage. The great philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas, when refuting erroneous ideas, always stated those ‘objections’ first. The remarkable thing was that he explained the other point of view even better than its advocates could before going ahead to systematically refute them. It is usual in our public debate these days for both sides to totally disregard any opposing viewpoint, sometimes haughtily, pigheadedly and impolitely.
The second point is that an ad Hominem attack is not an argument. An important mark of a civil discussion is that emphasis is placed on the propositions brought forward and not on the person who makes them. What we commonly find into the Nigerian public discourse is a tendency to easily resort to attacks on the person whose view differs from ours. We have government spokes persons calling critics ‘yesterday’s men’ or ‘evil stepmothers’ and those who as much as try to defend the government are labelled bootlickers,’voltrons’ or ‘learners’. Rather focus on what the person has said we tend to ask after his religion, tribe, or the company he worked for and then conclude that his arguments are irrelevant as his true motives are concealed. Most of the time we are so caught up in the mud-slinging that we don’t remember what the issue is in the first place. Personal grouses should be kept out of the public square and issues have to be faced squarely.
A third and easily forgotten point is that the truth is not determined by the majority. No matter how many people agree with a certain point of view it does not in any way determine its veracity. The aim of public discourse therefore is not to simply bring more people to our side but that a true understanding is reached by everyone. Our public debates –especially on social media forums – are sadly marked by the prevailing idea that the more ‘followers’ I am the more correct I am. Rather than our retweets not being endorsements, as many claim they aren’t, they become a means of showing just how many people endorse our point of view.
Reclaiming the meaning of true discourse in the Nigerian public square is a matter of urgency. The issues will not go away. Answers must be given and we cannot afford to waste our energies on irrelevant personal feuds. Being a part of an enlightened minority who shape public debate demands a sense responsibility and maturity.