Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

Time they grew up and gave us society we crave

Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein MLA
Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein MLA

The physical urge to knock the heads of the First and Deputy First Ministers together becomes overwhelming. Perhaps the impact might light up some previously unused synapses in their brains, so that they suddenly find themselves able to behave with something resembling maturity, courage and imagination, rather than indulging in their usual huffy, grim-faced stand-offs.

Some hope. The pathetic farce over the cancellation of the Ulster Aviation Show, which was to be held at the old Maze Prison site later this month, is merely the latest in a series of silly run-ins between the DUP and Sinn Fein, characterised by extreme self-righteousness on both sides.

They're so obsessed with their own petty battles that the poor old plane-fanciers didn't even get a letter telling them that their event was off.

Let's skip the convoluted details of who said what and why because it's all incredibly boring and tedious and dignifies the spat with more significance than it deserves.

You wouldn't bother pondering the ins and outs of a squabble over a half-chewed biscuit between two hostile toddlers, so why waste time analysing this?

All you need to know is that the two principal parties are behaving entirely in character, digging ever deeper into the usual entrenched positions, and hurling as much mud as possible at their opponents in the hope that one side emerges more visibly muck-clabbered than the other.

What they don't realise is that most people don't care either way and merely wish to live in a society where ordinary, normal events like vintage aeroplane shows are not used as ammunition in an endless culture war.

Whether Gerry Kelly has a bit of manure sticking to his eyebrow, or Jeffrey Donaldson's trousers are smeared with ordure, is a matter of widespread indifference. They all come out of these rows reeking of dung.

That said, our politicians are hardly unique in clinging desperately to their own uncompromising opinions. Think about it. When is the last time you heard someone – anyone – on a radio phone-in, or in heated debate on social media, or in a lively discussion in the pub, turn round and say: "Yes, that's a fair point you're making there, I must have got it wrong, you've succeeded in changing my mind"?

The subject itself doesn't matter. It could be Gaza, or assisted dying, or the price of broad beans. The point is that, increasingly, we cannot bear to give ground in an argument. We'd rather die than acknowledge that we might be wrong on an issue.

Our opinions are like a fortress we've built up around ourselves and to allow one brick to fall is to allow the whole edifice to crumble – or at least that's the way that many of us behave. I'm as bad as anyone: stubborn as a mule and ready to kick out, once I've made up my mind about something.

But such wilful intransigence is more than a bad habit. It has serious consequences for public debate.

If you lose the ability to openly discuss important questions and the humility to acknowledge when you have been unreasonable, or misinformed, or simply wrong, then there can be no discussion, no healthy exchange of ideas. No insight. No truth. No progress.

What you get instead is pure noise: the sound of a thousand people trying to shout each other down, ears stopped against the frightening possibility of actually listening to someone's viewpoint other than his own.

Another weird symptom of the debasement of public discourse is that merely disagreeing with someone is now seen as an inherently disrespectful, aggressive and possibly even hostile act. The equivalent of someone stamping up to your fortress and bludgeoning the drawbridge in.

But why have we got so super-sensitive about other people having different ideas to our own? Why should that be seen as so dangerous and damaging to the individual's fragile self-esteem?

The ability to criticise others while being able to take criticism ourselves is the foundation of a flourishing, confident, democratic society. Heck knows, we're not that yet, may never be.

But shutting up for a bit and actually listening to what the other person is saying, taking it on board, rather than simply waiting for them to stop talking, might be a start.

I'm reminded of a line from Eureka Street, by Robert McLiam Wilson, the best novel ever written about Belfast: "An opinion that remains unchanged quickly becomes a prejudice."

Maybe one day we'll be grown up enough to change our minds.

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