‘Listen to me, dammit’

‘Listen to me, dammit’

Don’t be alarmed, readers, the title isn’t me talking, but an imaginary character, male or female, who wants to hold forth and who isn’t prepared to listen to what anyone else has to say. This week and next my column comprises a follow-up to what I’ve been saying here recently about Brexit Speak (during the years leading up to Brexit, neither side —Leave or Remain — was prepared to listen to the other, and insulting language became the order of the day) and about tjolietsa, the use of harsh insults in election rally songs, insults aimed at rival parties and their supporters.

This sort of thing is happening all over the world and is at serious risk of damaging progressive and democratic values. The alternative is for us to dedicate ourselves to “listening rhetoric” (a curious term, which I shall discuss later), the skill of making space for others to air their views and, while arguing with these, doing so with respect.

Lack of respect for others and their views is on the rise everywhere: hate crimes and other offences relating to racism, anti-Semitism, fear of refugees and migrants, and homophobia are reported with increasing frequency from South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, the United States, Poland, Hungary, India, to name just a few parts of the world. A refusal to listen to others seems to be part-and-parcel of this frightening trend.

As I was sitting down to write this piece, an illustrative example of bad rhetoric came in from the United States. On the evening of February 4th President Trump delivered his State of the Union address, an annual event in the US political calendar. The speech was, as you would expect, hollow, bombastic, triumphalist. But it was the surrounding circus that was more significant. Before delivering the speech, Trump spurned the handshake offered by a political opponent, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Well that, too, was what one might expect.

But then, as the event wound up, standing behind Trump and in full view of millions of television viewers worldwide, Pelosi tore in half her copy of the President’s speech. It was dismaying that she could sink to his level in an act that, as CNN commented, “was ripped right from Trump’s playbook”.

Here now is another example of how democratic values are going to hell in a bucket. It is common practice for Trump and his aides to ban from White House briefings journalists who are seen to be antagonistic towards him. To the best of my knowledge, nothing similar has ever happened in the UK.  Until early February, that is, when journalists gathered at 10 Downing Street for a briefing from senior civil servants (and let us bear in mind that civil servants are apolitical, answerable in the last analysis to the general public).

Inside Boris Johnson’s official residence, the journalists found security guards dividing them into two groups, those who were to be allowed into the briefing and those who were to be booted out, because they were seen as being hostile to the Prime Minister. In response, every single journalist present walked out, protesting the offence against democratic values. An action that drew praise from the Press Corps in the US, whose members have not shown such solidarity.
To wind up this week, a reference to Lesotho. This is a country that hardly ever gets a mention in the UK press. But the Maesaiah Thabane saga has been widely reported. My family and friends have said to me: “but Chris, you go on and on about how wonderful Lesotho is; what’s happened to it?”
My reply: “I have never, ever, had a good word to say about Lesotho’s political class. But nor have I ever insulted them.”
(Continued next week )

By: Chris Dunton

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