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