Why we need associations to be the adults in the room

Have we lost the art of civilised debate? It sometimes seems that way.

I cannot recall a time, in my lifetime at least, when opinions were apparently so polarised and so bitterly expressed. Now, more than ever, international associations have an important role to play in promoting respectful discourse, tolerance, and diversity of thought in policy-making.

Because elsewhere things are pretty ugly.

Goaded on by a media desperate for clicks, people have sharpened their tongues while allowing their minds to solidify. Social media platforms have become toxic battle grounds, where those with rapier wit are garlanded with the most likes and retweets, regardless of the strength or veracity of their argument. There is no room for ambivalence or discovery. Nobody is open to having their minds changed. There are just lots of very angry people feeling let down. Venting, basically.

It can be hard to see precisely where the fault-lines run. The traditional left-right framing of politics seems less useful than ever. Not because the lines have become more blurred. On both sides of the Atlantic the gap between right and left wing parties is greater than it has been for decades. But rather because many of the underlying tensions that the left-right paradigm obscured have come to the surface. The sound and fury emanating from the media (traditional and social) looks more like a culture war pitting populism against liberalism, traditionalism against progressivism, communitarianism against individualism, and those who broadly favour globalisation, or view it as inevitable, against those who see it as a threat to national sovereignty that should be held in check.

From Gammons to Snowflakes there has been much caricaturing of those who hold a full stack of opinions on either side of these arguments. But I suspect most of us have a personal ideology, if that’s not too grand a term, which zig-zags rather messily across these dividing lines. Which makes the current level of discourse so profoundly depressing. Social media, with its artificial incentives and soundbite formula, is to a large part to blame. But so are internet search engines, which tend to amplify our cognitive bias. Ask a question in a certain way and it will give you the answer you want. We are all responsible for the mess we find ourselves in.

It is said we get the leaders we deserve and the quality of our politicians seems to have reached a terrifyingly low ebb. Speaking as a Brit, the Queen recently lamented the ‘inability of politicians to govern’. She presumably had the Brexit debacle in mind, but she could have been speaking for people around the world who gaze in wonder at the ineptitude of the political class. Everywhere divisive figures are being elected to govern because public discourse has become so divisive.

With often large and diverse memberships, and sitting outside the fray of party politics, associations can act as a buffer against the coarser aspects of modern society. By encouraging open and frank discussion, while showing zero tolerance for ad hominem attacks, they can become places for adults to remember what it was like to be an adult before Facebook turned adults into kidults. Associations can lead from the front, ensuring their boards accurately reflect their membership and ensuring, too, that, where possible, disagreement is framed in the language of competing virtues and resolved in a way that doesn’t involve one side standing with its foot on the other side’s throat.