Civility in Public Discourse
19 May 2014
Two weeks ago, I was invited by university students from seven campuses in Tabora, central Tanzania, to speak about the constitutional review process and leadership in the new era of science and technology. I decided to honour the invitation for two reasons: first, I have always been keen to engage fellow young people as a way of gauging the future of our country; and secondly, I took the visit as an escape from the acrimony and pettiness pervading the ongoing Constitutional Assembly. By participating in a debate at a university, with young scholars, I reckoned, would amount to a much needed detox for any politician.
Upon arrival, I learnt that the topic on leadership in the new century was shelved. I was a bit disappointed because I wanted to spend more time on this matter than the divisive and tiresome constitutional review process. So, there were to be two presenters and two respondents – and then me. Each presenter made impassioned speech, and each was both cheered and shouted down by a section of the audience. To my amazement, it was chaotic. Students cheered what they wanted to hear and booed views different from theirs. Whistles filled the hall and presented a very intimidating atmosphere.
Regional government leaders who had accompanied me started panicking, worrying that I would be embarrassed. Murmurs at the main table were about how I should have been advised not to come here. Student leaders were apologetic. But I had different things on my mind. I have all along known, believed and appreciated that universities are places of diverse ideas and strong expressions of those ideas. Anything different would be an anomaly. What I did not expect, and what disappointed me, was the incapacity to listen to ideas and views different from ours. And this is what prompted me to write this essay.
As I was watching the chaos my hope for a detox evaporated. The way these young students debated and interacted mirrored our way in politics. And I made this point to them when I got to speak – that these days we simply shut down the speaker with whom we disagree. It is simply easier and convenient than the horror of listening to new and strange and different notions about our world. I told them that when and where I went to university it was admirable to be radical, to take non-mainstream views. But we also allowed for an opportunity and a possibility to change our minds. And that can only happen with the exposure to different ideas and views. I told them that we in politics have already decided – alas fallaciously – that we have all the answers. But it would be tragic for a university community to behave the same. How fantastic would it be for a 22-year old to have all the answers, to know everything, to choose what to hear - to have an option of refusing to encounter difference!
In politics, we abhor complexity and the incomprehensible. For us, political rationale is better than the rational. We are about the absolutes. If the academia falls into the same, not only will the debates and scholarship be irrelevant but the society will be doomed. Luckily, societies do not operate with the whims of politicians. Regular life is about mediation and compromise – everyday, at workplace, in business, in markets, on the roads – in all social transactions. And one hopes that, for would-be leaders, we must learn this at school, the first place we encounter diversity after we leave the homogeneous authoritarianism of our households.
The point I want to make here, resulting from reflections from my visit there, is that knowledge is key to the advancement of a society. Diffusion of knowledge within a society is an act of transaction. Knowledge is not exact, knowledge is fluid, and it is improved and sharpened and applied in the act of its transaction. The university – not just the university lecture hall – is an important place for the transaction of knowledge. If that place becomes toxic and intolerant, it is a sure bet that progress in the society will be imperiled.
Few weeks ago, I sent out an article to my friends which profiled Dr. Jacob Bronowski, an eminent Polish mathematician, who believed that “the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion”. The key words here are “a play of tolerance”. Expect not to learn much if you can’t stand what you don’t believe – or understand.
A vigorous public discourse is always healthy, but we must rid ourselves of the impulse to not let the other person finish before we respond. In fact, these days in the Parliament, we listen to respond not to understand. This much change.
So, how did I do during my talk with the rowdy crowd? They were respectful enough to allow me to at least start talking. So, I started with a question to them: imagine if creatures from another planet had been listening to us debate from the windows of this hall over the past hour. If they were to report back about us as a university, as scholars, as leaders, as a society, what would they say? Everybody was quiet. And I got to say whatever I wanted to say without interruption.