Gina Davidson: Respectful debate lost in hateful rhetoric

ELECTIONS are always held on a Thursday. It's therefore been a blessing and a curse to be the columnist for this paper whose words appear on the day we all go to the polls.

Thursday, 23rd June 2016, 10:09 am
Updated Thursday, 23rd June 2016, 11:28 am
Late Labour MP Jo Co. Picture: PA

By now you’ll have voted in the EU referendum or at least know whether you’re for Remain or Leave. I’ve never felt comfortable, as many others do, to wax lyrical from this vantage point and attempt to tell you how you should vote. Last week though I broke with that and suggested you vote to stay in Europe.

I’m not rehashing the arguments here, you know what both sides are saying and it would be nice to think that you agree with me, but if you don’t then I respect your decision.

Respect. It’s a virtue which seems to have fallen out of fashion. As a nation we have - thankfully - lost the archaic, automatic doffing-of-cap deference to our “elders and betters”. But the total lack of respect that makes up most of our political discourse as has proved in this referendum campaign, in particular on social media, is corrosive to all of us.

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The reasons for the disrespect is not hard to find. Our national institutions in which we have historically placed such faith have let us down: the banks gambled with our prosperity and crashed our economy; too many politicians used the money we give them to represent us and wasted it on duck houses and John Lewis shopping lists while some flipped mortgages in order to grab yet more for themselves; some journalists in the national press hacked into celebrities and ordinary people’s phones for scurrilous stories; TV stars of the past were discovered to be child abusers and the BBC was complicit in turning a blind eye.

The constant promises made by elected representatives to close education attainment gaps or the yawning wealth void, to create more jobs, invest in schools and health – we’ve seen them turn to dust in their mouths.

Jobs are disappearing, homelessness is on the rise, the social security net we all thought would catch us safely has gaping holes. We all feel vulnerable, precarious, distrustful. Everything we once thought was as solid as Aberdeen granite feels as sand slipping through our fingers.

And then when at our lowest we are faced with referenda. If democracy is a gift, a referendum is a badly wrapped, bashed-up box from the bottom of the bargain bin of politics. Once opened, it reveals itself to be empty.

Normal political elections are heated affairs – left, right, centre, green, red, blue, yellow – but there are many choices on the ballot paper. Referenda boil things down to simply you or me, us or them, with me or against me, I’m right – you’re wrong. They paint complex political and social arguments in black and white terms – sometimes literally in this campaign – and are destructive to respectful debate.

Respect becomes a victim. No longer able to earned it means experts are suddenly derided as idiots, that conspiracy theories abound about our voting system being rigged – take a pen not a pencil to the polling station in case your vote is tampered with! – and those who lead the campaigns become targets for hate speech.

Outrage weaves its way through the discourse. Traitors, quislings, racists, Nazis... we saw it during the Scottish independence referendum and it’s been amplified by the EU debate.

Viciousness become a reasonable response on Twitter or Facebook. MPs feel able to use Hitler analogies with which to smear opponents. Rape threats, death threats are commonplace... and ultimately last week things went far beyond that.

When someone like Jo Cox can be murdered in the street for doing her job as an MP, for caring about others including people she had never met – it proves we are sinking in a cesspool of our own making.

She wasn’t an expenses-scandal MP. She was a mum who was trying to make the world a better place – had always done so through her working life. Like the vast majority of politicians she deserved respect for putting herself forward for election, to feel so strongly that she wanted to help.

Of course it may be proved that Thomas Mair is clinically insane, but if not then we have to take a hard look at ourselves and admit his actions were the physical endpoint of our hate-filled political rhetoric.

Yes many feel duped by those in charge – feel stupid to have believed the hype. We’ve lost our self-respect and that is the root from which all respect grows.

We need to get it back. We need to stop the hate, the bile, the belief that we’re constantly being lied to, the kneejerk reaction to dismiss opposing arguments in the foulest of language. We need to count to ten, to breathe, to let go of the hyperbole and the ridicule as the instinctive response.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes – walk that metaphoric mile. Make sure you read widely and don’t rely on single sources for your information. Use your critical faculties which may have been lying dormant.

Think about your words, your actions. Argue passionately, demand robust answers and proper responsibility from politicians – but show some respect, even if it’s just a little, for the other point of view. Try a little understanding. Look at how our politicians in Scotland have stood side-by-side in this referendum campaign – Tories with SNP with Labour with Greens – and accept that not everything is as black and white as you’d perhaps like it to be.

If all else fails remember what your mum told you: if you’ve nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Let your X in the polling booth do your talking.

There has been more heat than light in this campaign. Perhaps democracy is like one of those plants that needs a full-scale forest fire to re-seed itself. Today might be the bonfire of our insecurities – tomorrow our democracy begins anew.

But remember, if the result doesn’t go your way – then you have to respect that too.

‘Amnesia’ is reason for lack of trust

The apparent amnesia of council staff involved in the botched repair work at Cameron House is exactly the kind of frustrating shirking of responsibility which leads people to despair at how political institutions conduct themselves and whether the truth is ever told.

That officials “can’t remember” what they did about the plague of problems at the community centre. It’s not good enough.

It’s also not the end of the affair – there’s much more to come out about what happened there. But this latest twist is indicative of why there’s a lack of trust and faith in local politics.

Vigils are heartwarming

In more heart-warming news it has been wonderful to see the vigils of remembrance in Edinburgh for Jo Cox, attended by people who never knew her, perhaps had never even heard of her before last week. I hope her two children grow up knowing how her death has affected us all.