Let’s Be CourTeous In Our Public Discourse, Please!

ghana-supreme-courtThe Supreme Court of Ghana is currently deliberating on the most crucial petition ever presented to a court in Ghana; a petition that prays the Court to set aside the results of a presidential election, as announced by the Returning Officer of presidential elections, the Electoral Commissioner.

Members of the panel that constitutes the Court need to focus on extremely serious and complex issues, in order to understand fully what happened on 7-8 December 2012, and rule on whether the verdict of the 10 million or more voters who went to the polls then, was truly reflected in the result declared by the Electoral Commissioner.

Yet they are being distracted by comments made outside the Court, some of which they wisely ignore, but some of which they feel so strongly about that they think they should make their views formally known about them.

Now, I must say that I am not one of those who believe that the power of members of the judiciary was given to them by our Constitution to enable them to insulate themselves altogether from the principal tenets of the rest of the same constitution, especially those which guarantee freedom of speech to each citizen and implicitly urge citizens to be tolerant of one another’s views.

But the Constitution does give power to the judiciary, through contempt of court proceedings, to punish those who stray outside the bounds of freedom of speech into the realms of speech capable of inciting violence, or of scandalising the courts to an extent which exposes members of the judiciary to hatred and disrespect.

The line between the use of the judiciary’s power to punish and the citizens’ interpretation of what constitutes free speech is very finely drawn. And ideally, it should not be often tested in a democracy. Judges must have thick skins: the power they have to deprive their fellow citizens of their liberty and/or property is so potent that aloofness to petty blathering about themselves must come with the territory.

There is a proverb – one of those carved out of our social evolution – which says that “An elder does not always hear everything that is said.” (Opanin di mannte, mannte.) In other words, our traditional society is so open that children – especially – are allowed to give vent to their feelings without inhibition, in order that one day, when they have something really important to communicate, they may not be deterred from saying it.

This is where personal judgement comes in: the elder has to be percipient enough to distinguish between what is important and what is merely petulant. If he wins the trust of the children, one day he would be sitting there smoking his pipe peacefully when he hears one of them say to another, “Ei, they say the young men are planning to destool the chief!” The elder wouldn’t have come by this hugely significant intelligence if he’d been shouting down the kids and told them to shut up, every time they delved into “older people’s affairs.”
Of course, if the elder was really wise, he’d not neglect to correct them gently when they erred: “Don’t say it like that; rather say it like this.” It’s a fine balance (as I have admitted) but it can be struck.

The distractions the Supreme Court is currently trying to deal with are, to my mind, due to two things: the general degeneration into abuse, of public discourse in the country as well as a woeful ignorance of the legal system we have inherited.

The degeneration of public discourse into abuse is, of course, largely caused by our political system. Our system is not issue-based, but party-based. We tend to go by this method of arguing:
“He said so-and-so.”
“Oh, did he?”
“Yes”
“Foolish man! It’s because he is an HPF sympathiser. Nothing the JKL party does can ever please him.”
“Let’s call our radio station and debunk his nonsense.”
“Yes, give me the number.”
“Oh, you haven’t stored it on your phone? You’re not a good party member at all!”
“Give it to me and shut up! My phone’s memory got wiped out that day my battery died.”
Now, in some countries, party members who make telephone calls to radio stations are monitored closely by the stations, in case they indulge in insults, irrational thinking and rabble-rousing. The stations know that most of the serial callers take their cue from politicians who are afflicted with verbal diarrhoea every time they mount a political platform. If such politicians want to be cheered by the crowds they are addressing, they may resort to crude insults.

But a political rally is not the same as a radio station.
Alas, our radio station owners don’t know this, and many a time, they allow their stations to become political rally-grounds beaming vitriol into the homes of people who don’t want to have anything to do with extremist politics.

In some countries, a politician or participant in a discussion is not allowed to use insulting words on radio programmes. But they manage to discuss highly controversial subjects all right. The reason is that they know the English language – for instance – is very rich and you can make the same point quite forcefully without insulting anyone.

In Britain, a senior official who wanted to accuse a government of having lied, said the government had been “economical with the truth!” Same idea, and probably, even more powerfully conveyed because if he had said the government had lied, there would have been a hullabaloo for some days and everyone would have forgotten all about it, as lies and government are often synonymous. But “economical with the truth” does rather stick in the mind, doesn’t it?

Now, if I were arguing with you and I wanted to say that
what you said didn’t make sense to me, I could say, “You’re talking nonsense!” That would immediately ignite the atmosphere and you might reply, “You are a fool for saying I am talking nonsense.” From there, fisticuffs would not be very difficult to call into action.

But suppose I said, “I am sorry, you need to explain that to me a bit more – I am not getting your drift!” That puts the onus on you – you’d have to explain, in which case you might move from nonsense to utter bilge if you stuck by your argument, or it might give you an opportunity to reassess your position and hence probably strengthen the point you were making.

Ah – but I forget emotion. Most of our political discourse is nothing but a prolonged emotional outburst with the subscript couched in the following terms: “we won the election but you say we didn’t win it and everything you say is a lie! Meant to give you what you lost at the polls!” and conversely, “you stole the election and you’ve obliged us to go to court and see how you are trying to confuse the court with endlessly repetitive cross-examination!” This mentality is called polarisation, and it is unpleasant, potentially dangerous and totally unworthy of a country whose traditions incorporate a system whereby cases are settled by calling on the disputants to make their case before an assembly of the whole public, for adjudication by the elders of the society.

To make a case before such an assembly, a disputant needs to be calm, composed and persuasive. Bad language would cause the assembly to be prejudiced against one. And illogical argumentation would cause jeers and titters amongst the crowd, and ensure that a swift verdict of “guilty” was issued against one.

The other point I want to make is that the subtleties that underlie our law and constitution – for instance, the balance of interests between the judiciary as an august and independent entity and the populace as its “partner” that looks to the judiciary to protect it from the excesses of a potentially predatory state – are not universally understood. Nor are concepts like sub judice and contempt of court.

In any case, if those whose conduct has been initially deemed offensive by the Supreme Court were well apprised of our own cultural values, I doubt whether they would be where they are today. The language in which they couched their ideas alone would have ensured that no-one mistook their exercise of their right to freedom of speech would be misconstrued for disrespect. In that context, we all have a lot to learn. Let this be a lesson to us that we have nothing to lose by not forgetting to be courteous – even when we are talking about issues that seem to us to be of the greatest political import.

 

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