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Is Rhetorical Restraint for Wimps?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

I am so fed up with public affairs broadcast media in the US right now that I avoid them as one would avoid a madman howling in the marketplace. The noise level is so high it deafens. Almost every public affairs broadcast is overrun by sundry shouters and ranters. They are called 'bloviators'. There is no middle ground on any issue, no penumbras. Everything is either black or white. The intensity is so great you are always hoping that the next election will lead to a lessening of the noise level. But, no, the intensity continues unabated. What is worse, leading broadcasters and political figures have given themselves permission to say anything...just about anything. To escape the vehemence of it all, I find myself retreating into the embrace of the BBC, France 24 and such outlets because (1) they cover the rest of the world as though it mattered, which it does, and (2) they don't threaten my equanimity with profligate intensity and verbal incontinence.

Shockingly, then, something unites the US and a typical fragile state -- say, Guinea right now  -- and it is this: a clangorous, tension-boosting public sphere. And the real point I want to make  is that the example draws attention to something developing countries have to work on and keep working on: rhetorical restraint in open, inclusive public spheres. In plural, multi-ethnic societies like the one I grew up in (Nigeria), without rhetorical restraint by leaders and the media - especially broadcast media - orgies of violence will be daily occurrences. As things stand, they happen too often already. It is a testimony to the strength of the institutions of governance in the US that rhetorical excesses have not yet led to political violence, although they have certainly had consequences. Witness the debate that the Economist is currently hosting on-line (This house believes that America's political system is broken).

I remember something that my editors in Nigeria, both in print and broadcast  used to drum into new writers/reporters/anchors: you cannot simply say or write anything that comes to your head. You have to be very respectful of the sensitivities of the many ethnic and religious communities in the country. I remember, for instance, that in the years that I worked  for the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, anytime you mentioned the name of the founder of Islam, the Holy Prophet Mohammed, and in spite of the fact that you were not a Muslim, you always had to add: 'May Peace and Honor Be Unto Him'. You did this each and every time, and it became a habit that I still maintain.

Above all, rhetorical restraint helps to  build political community. It creates the basis for dialogue and for the habit of comprise, all the things you need for a political community to function well, and for democracy to succeed. Which is why a long line of political philosophers -- Kant, Mill, Dewey, Habermas, to name of few -- has stressed the importance of the public arena, the civil discourse within it, and the consequences that these structures and processes can have. And one vital mechanism is a media system designed to encourage inclusive and respectful dialogue by citizens, not the unceasing rhetorical violence of partisan megaphones.

(For more on this, please see Broadcasting, Voice, and Accountability: A Public Interest Approach to Policy, Law, and Regulation.)


Photo Credit: Flickr user michael newman

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Submitted by Anonymous on
For God’s sake do you think they really cover the rest of the world as though it matters to everybody or just them? What type of news that emanates from Africa and the rest of the “third” world that they most emphasize on? It has never been responsible journalism; it is always their frightening frenzy!! They never cease to want others to view the world via their lens - and mark you, it is always negative – particularly any news from Africa... Their colonial mentality is scary and will never trust them on anything.

As an "Amuhr-i-kan," I was at first very offended by this piece. But that was tempered by a friend's story, who lived in Gdansk during the Solidarnosc uprising. When her worried mother called to check on my friend's safety, my friend said that the reality was nothing like what was being written in the papers. It was a pretty sobering statement on our "freedom of the press." That being said, I would question whether your essay has a factual basis or is it just your opinion. Without more extensive supporting data, say a quantitative rating of "bloviating" remarks in various media from a select group of countries, I would say it is the latter. I should note that I have also read articles from Africa and found them loaded with disconcerting remarks. In a system where the product, with the product being the news, must be sold, it is very difficult to maintain objectivity and not play to the crowd, as many media outlets tend to do. For example, many service people report on some of the wonderful work being done in Afghanistan to a team of journalists, but when the journalists hear of a road bombing nearby that is what makes the news. Other than that, I found your writing brilliant and thought provoking.

Submitted by s masty on
civilised thoughts from a civilised man. alas it's all about money attracted by spectacle. american audiences pay for what they want.

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