Some weeks ago, a non-Ghanaian friend visited Ghana web to read news and articles about Ghana and the comments of some readers. The next day, she asked why people on the site were insulting one another so much. Upon reflection, I have to agree that despite our celebrated hospitality to foreigners, we are not nice to one another at all in our public forums. Indeed, from Ghana web and its infamous “SAY-IT-LOUD”, to the pages of many newspapers to the live call-ins of our FM stations, there is too much of unnecessary insults being passed around. We insult our leaders and they sometimes insult one another. We insult those of other political parties. We insult those of other tribes.
The unprecedented advances in communication technology coupled with unprecedented freedoms have revolutionalised our ability to communicate. From a person’s living room in any corner of the world, he/she can put out information and/or opinion that can be read and digested in the farthest corner of the world in a matter of minutes. Recently, I was interviewed an on-line radio station and in the course of an hour answered questions from listeners in New Zealand, Finland and Germany! But the use of these powerful tools without any care can have harmful consequences. We seem to confuse shrillness with strength and civility with weakness.
The insulting and disagreeable nature of our public discourse has the following effects.
First, it discourages some from offering their opinions on important issues. Second, even when a person puts good ideas on the table, the accompanying insults make it harder for others to see merit in those ideas.
Third, the peddling of unsubstantiated rumours can sometimes ruin unfairly, a reputation that has taken a lifetime to build.
Fourth, the insulting tone of our public discourse affects our governance and the way our leaders do business. When two leaders have just insulted each other in public, it is harder for them to work together to resolve issues of concern to our nation. Furthermore, the relentless attacks may sometimes discourage very competent people from offering themselves for leadership.
Our affinity for insults is unfortunate because no matter good insulting others make us feel, no insult has ever built a bridge, fed a hungry child or healed a sick person.
For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a plea for avoiding the truth and the tough arguments that may be necessary in understanding issues or reaching important decisions. Indeed, I have been known to be tough in debating others and may have occasionally crossed the line.
My plea is for us to be respectful of one another even when we disagree about ideas.
To improve our public discourse, I suggest the following;
a: As individuals, we must try harder to show respect and courtesy to others we meet on newspaper pages, on the air and on the web.
b: Our journalists and other guardians of the public square must set good examples in how they write and in the case of radio and the web have guidelines for the conduct of those who will use their medium. This is not a call to censure opinions. It is a call to encourage good manners.
c: Our leaders must set good examples for all of us by conducting themselves with proper decorum in their public communications, with one another and the public.
At the end of a long and difficult campaign during the 2000 Presidential campaign, then Vice-President Gore and Texas Governor Bush met at a function in New York where both of them spoke. Mr. Gore spoke first and well. Then Governor Bush spoke. Towards the end of his speech, he turned to the Vice-President and said “Sir, even though in this endeavour in which we are engaged, I cannot wish you success, I certainly wish you well.” That is the spirit and attitude that should characterize our communication with one another.
My fellow Ghanaians let one of our New Year resolutions be that we will be more respectful of others in our public discourse. That certainly will be a great and welcome birthday present to our nation as she turns fifty.
May our nation grow from strength to strength.