“Civilised debate.” What does that really mean? The Pope is of the view that no-one should be allowed to insult someone else’s religion, or else fear for the consequences. That is certainly true. We abhor cartoons, slogans, or writing attacking Christianity; the same applies to Islam. It is wrong, and it should not be allowed. But it does not justify the kind of violence we have seen in recent weeks. No civilised person - Christian or Muslim - would say that it does.
Indeed all that it has led to is a perfectly justified outcry at an apparent attempt to prevent freedom of speech, which after all is a basic prerequisite of civilised debate and conversation. That has led of course to blatant repeats of the original insult in order to defy the critics and censors. “You were offended by what we said. You tried to stop us saying it. That means that we will say it again and again to prove that you cannot do so,” is roughly the line of argument. And it achieves nothing at all, except a furtherance of the original uncivilised behaviour. “If you punch me, I’ll punch you back – and harder” is the old playground taunt. It is fair, but it does not de-escalate the punch-up.
The ancient Greeks knew the value of civilised debate conducted under strict rules. The peripatetics marched up and down either side of a high wall offering thesis and antithesis in the hope of creating synthesis. St Thomas Aquinas perfected the model in mediaeval times; it is still practised today in dramatic format with shouts and mystical hand-gestures in Buddhist monasteries.
Parliamentary debate may not be as fine as it once was. 24 hour rolling media, Twitter and the end of good classical education has dealt it various blows; but the principles of civilised debate are nonetheless epitomised in our procedures. We listen patiently to the other view no matter how absurd it may be; we respect the courtesies of the House as we offer our counter-view; and it all ends up in a vote conducted in the most orderly of ways at the end of the day’s debate. Thoroughly civilised, and the envy of Parliaments around the world.
The Leaders’ Debates in the last General Election were quite different. They glorified the personality of the leaders at the expense of reasoned debate. They bore little resemblance to true civilised debate, having more in common with the bear-pit or gladiatorial contests in the Coliseum. The same applies to Prime Minister’s Question Time, which is a bit of theatrical fun once a week, but which has lost any real meaning or purpose it ever had. I would prefer to see both abolished in favour of true reasoned debate, and wholly support David Cameron’s argument that they most only go ahead if all of the parties are represented at them. The Greens are polling ahead of the Lib Dems at the moment, so why should they be excluded?
I personally very much look forward to local ‘Hustings’ meetings during the General Election campaign locally, the first of which is already being planned in Malmesbury. They are a traditional and important part of all elections in North Wiltshire, and in my experience over 20 years are conducted with the greatest degree of civilisation possible. Their aim is to add to the sum total of human happiness, knowledge and understanding; not just to knock spots off the other candidates!