White noise democracy

 
 

In the aftermath of the Lisbon referendum, Conor Murphy looks at the descent of political debate into mere soundbites and accusations

The curiosity of why Ireland swung so dramatically to the Yes side of the Lisbon referendum is growing. Was it fear? Was it hope for something fresh? Was it an overall sensation that the acid freaks were right, and we’re all one person after all, and Yes just sounded more positive? It is irrelevant now, and a more important question rears its head. It’s not why, but rather how we came to vote Yes.

How did we come to this decision this time? How did we arrive at the contrary, angry, rebellious shout we roared the last time? All of us have a particular strong opinion about something. Jobs, war and health are all hopes and fears that make us vote – but how do we arrive at these hopes fears and ultimately vital decisions?

Photo: Colin Scally
Photo: Colin Scally

A man held a poster on O’Connell Street two weeks ago. It proclaimed, “Vote No to Lisbon because of amputated sons”. I asked why he had chosen a ridiculous statement, on what he saw as the militarisation of Europe. He said, “it rhymes with the line before it.” We both laughed; I wasn’t laughing with him.

The average person on the street doesn’t watch many Prime Time debates and, in contrast to the regular student, doesn’t have access to debates between high-level politicians and protesters on their doorstep. Those non-students, they don’t have time to actually find information. They have jobs, family life and other commitment to attend to. They have limited time to deliberate on issues; they’ve got a life to be getting on with – but nonetheless they must decide, one way or the other.

And so they walk out of their houses and see the posters – ‘Yes for peace’ versus ‘No for peace’ – and decide which one rhymed better, or was more eye-catching. It was a decision between a giraffe who thinks “they’ve got some neck”, and the four women who seem to find the act of replacing the word ‘sex’ in Sex and the City with ‘Yes’ and ‘in’ wickedly funny. (You probably had to be there.)

The main parties’ Yes campaign took flak from many sides for their banalities. Their posters just seemed to give a half-positive shrug – “Yes for jobs” – and some of the posters were ridiculous (“Give yourself a treaty”). They could have just put a smiley face, with “big boy high-five for Yes!” written below, and it would be of equal worth. Sadly, however, these banalities were also the best posters of the campaign, because they were the more honest. They didn’t try to reduce an important treaty, governing the daily lives of half a billion people, to three words. Instead, they just pointed out the generally positive effect they felt it would have.

People, of course, complain and compare these displays to the vibrancy of other posters. Maybe they could jazz them up like the others; maybe they could reduce it to some New World Order scare, or say that only ugly people vote No (‘Yes in the City’?), or pursue the popular ‘you’re an idiot if you disagree’ tactic. All are very good options if you feel like making referendum white noise.

We, as students and as the future of this country, have a position to fight against the degradation of debates to blurbs and soundbites, and to stop treating public debate as being a winner-take-all fight to the death where everyone is desperate to score points, however cheaply. But would we do it, or would we be too afraid? Would we refrain from standing out, because the first party to stand on principle will be probably see themselves as the party to stand alone outside Leinster House?

This doesn’t have to be the case. There doesn’t need to be the party to take the proverbial bullet. We could resist the banalities and the hyperbole. What about a future where the posters aren’t the debate, but merely the guide to where to find the debate: perhaps a simple ‘Vote Yes/No, visit X to find out why’.

The internet is an incredible tool to foster debate, give it the space to mature, and ultimately allow discussion actually be functional. If a critical mass of parties and groups used it to its full effect in election and referendum campaigns, the few who would retain the prostitution of reactionary images and slogans would – rightfully – seem like the crazy few to push out into the cold. We could stop using bullet points and use actual points. But of course, the internet is also home to several million of those crazies, and discussions do tend to veer off course rather alarmingly. L1sbon FTW.

It might appear slightly optimistic, but frankly a full, open and boring debate is far better than the alternative, where we make decisions on the issue of the day by whipping them out and measuring. At the very least, it would be a less arbitrary method of governance than “it rhymed with the other line.”

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