"Political Discourse Can Only Be Efficacious If It Is Free: Expert"Printed in The Tehran Times, August 25, 2014, International section
Dr. Eric Thomas Weber
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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, by Javad Heiran-Nia
TEHRAN - Professor Eric Thomas Weber believes that political discourse can only be efficacious if it is free.
In an interview with the Tehran Times, Weber says, "Political discourse must be supported by honest and sound reasoning."
Weber, the professor of public policy leadership at the University of Mississippi, also says, "Without basis in the truth, in proper logic, and in the use of healthy emotions, the exploitation of sentiments to shape people's attitudes is immoral."
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: How does political discourse shape society?
A: Many factors shape society, including especially the environments we live in and the conditions we endure or enjoy. Many problems arise because the majority of people do not feel the concerns of a minority. In some countries, the majority or its political representatives prohibit the minority even from voicing its concerns in public dialogue. Political discourse is one of the important avenues by which we argue for this or that solution in policy for the resolution of our problems. Such discourse is not always the most powerful force in changing people's minds, as people are often moved by emotions or by self-interest. Therefore, to change minds, we must often find ways to exert pressure on people's emotions or pocket-books.
When a majority or advantaged group routinely does wrong or is insensitive to the plight of others, we can shame offenders by talking about, recording, and broadcasting the troubling behavior we wish to end. We can also tell the stories of those who are affected and oppressed, humanizing them for others and enabling people to see the world from the point of view of that minority. The former force exerts psychological pressure to change for those who feel ashamed when their behavior becomes known and the subject of discussion and disapproval. In areas of great injustice, public discourse in the press, the arts, and the humanities are routinely circumscribed precisely because of their power to shape public opinion for the sake of redressing harms done by the powerful or the majority. As a result, a key measure of a society's freedom is the extent to which such channels and means are free for inquiry, allowing people to speak up against injustice.
Political discourse can draw on the imagery and emotional rhetoric necessary to influence people, but it adds a vital component to the effort to pursue reform for the sake of justice. Political discourse must be supported by honest and sound reasoning. Without basis in the truth, in proper logic, and in the use of healthy emotions, the exploitation of sentiments to shape people's attitudes is immoral. Political discourse is the medium in which ideals and considerations are assessed, clarified, and rendered concrete in reference to contemporary problems. Therefore, any movement towards justice using emotion and rhetoric to shape public opinion must be rooted in the values of free political discourse. Societies which repress political discourse thereby reveal a spreading crack in their governments' claims on legitimate authority.
Q: Does political discourse need a manager for survival?
A: There are several ways to interpret the question of whether political discourse requires a manager. On the one hand, oversight by a government which decides that some ideas or challenges cannot be discussed is evidence that its grasp on authority is achieved only by censorship, by threat of violent, social, or economic pressures to conform. In that sense, a manager for political discourse will appear deeply troubling to anyone who loves freedom and democracy. On the other hand, without some kind of check on public voices, people could injure one another with baseless libel, rooted in falsehood and intended to harm. Credibility matters. The truth matters. Therefore, the real managers of discourse in the context of libel are mechanisms like the courts, through which individuals can protect their reputations with lawsuits. In addition, in the courts, laws against perjury contribute to managing truth-telling, but only in limited contexts.
Two more points are deeply important for considering what kind of management is acceptable and even morally necessary for political discourse to avoid harm or to enable social progress. The first is that people lead busy lives and often lack the time to dedicate themselves to the research and writing it takes to weigh in provocatively on political issues. Given this constraint, "opinion leaders" play an important role in advancing political discourse. The trouble is that powerful and advantaged citizens and organizations have enormously greater resources for the sponsorship of voices representing their interests, while the disadvantaged citizens lack such resources and consequently voice for their concerns. Some people can help diminish the imbalance to a small degree, including the nobler religious leaders who speak up for the least among us. Others are journalists who are sometimes supported by their readership and editors for speaking up for the greater public interest. Then there are the more occasional contributors from universities around the world, like mine, and from other industries.
The second though more important source of management of political discourse is an educated public. The public exerts its force on political discourse first and most fundamentally in its reactions to the news of government action. The public's critiques must be informed and enabled, however, which occurs through the empowering results of universal education. Thomas Jefferson famously advocated for an educated public as the only guarantee for the preservation of a free society. Without an educated populace, the arguments of those in power do not have to be well reasoned and demonstrated. Frederick Douglass explained long ago that power concedes nothing without demand. The public must both understand and react intelligently to the ideas put forth in political discourse. Then it must demand that persons in positions of power enact those policies and decisions which reflect the will of the people. In this sense, then, the greatest manager of political discourse, as inchoate as it often appears to be, is the people exerting pressure on public figures and raising expectations for leadership.
Q: How can political discourse prevail in a society like societies in the Middle East?
A: Political discourse can only be efficacious if it is free. Before any other demand brought to politicians, a free press must be the first step. No figure should be above scrutiny. When people go hungry, when medicines are needed but denied, when persons are imprisoned wrongfully, the people have no recourse, no avenue for redress if they are not permitted to raise concerns about justice, truth, and reform. In the United States, the protection of free speech is so great that radically unpopular messages are tolerated. The reason is not that people enjoy such speech. Rather, it is important to know what citizens think, even if they are wrong. More importantly, if people do not have the release of energies and pressures which comes from speaking one's mind about what one believes to be right, the only alternative is explosive violence. Therefore, the protection of radical and unpopular speech is crucial for social stability, even though one might expect the reverse to be the case.
In recent years, the world has witnessed uprisings in such developments as the Arab Spring. These moments are examples of the buildup of dissatisfactions not permitted release. In time, more constriction of the people will almost certainly result in further eruptions of revolutionary action. Societies unwilling to expand people's freedoms will be the least able to maintain themselves. Ironically, the desire for stability should prompt leaders to fight for opening up the avenues for political discourse which will appear turbulent and chaotic. Battles in the realm of ideas, however, are processes by which intelligence is refined and the best ideas can rise to the surface like cream. Conflicts about how best to lead society replace political imprisonment, violence, and censorship, and in exchange offer the give and take of public inquiry in pursuit of the wisest course of action for leadership. After all, there is no better test of the merits and flaws of one's policy proposals than the deep scrutiny which arises when one submits his or her ideas for objective evaluation, for the receipt of the objections from opposition and skeptics.
There is no more important development which could yield moral, social, and intellectual progress in the Middle East than the progressive growth of freedom in public dialogue. All else hinges upon this, including the legitimacy of existing political authorities, and consequently the likelihood of their long-term survival. It may seem counterintuitive, but the clearest path to a stable society in much of the Middle East runs through change – through the sincere release of the reins which presently inhibit the exercise of free political discourse.
Dr. Eric Thomas Weber is associate professor of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi and is author of four books, including Democracy and Leadership: On Pragmatism and Virtue (November, 2013) - 30% discount available when you buy from the publisher's Web site, see discount flyer.