The adage goes: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me!”. The thing is that harsh words can and do hurt. Broken bones will heal; but when we are derogatory or contemptuous of others, the psychological effects can be deep and lasting.
This is why when we slander or libel someone, the aggrieved party can ask for damages in a court of law for their wounded reputation.
This is why we were all appalled at the classroom rantings of the teacher at Tranquillity, recently reported.
The bell has now been rung formally for Local Government Elections and we have entered at least 12 months of electioneering leading up to the General Election due next year.
In normal times our political discourse is usually coarse and cutting. Even in the Senate, where a higher, more respectful standard of debate is expected, the behaviour has steadily regressed toward the standards of the Lower House, whose own standards have been falling.
Parliamentary sittings and its committees are transmitted live on the Parliament channel and to the world via Parliament’s YouTube channel. The arrogance, the obvious disrespect if not contempt, are on display for the whole world to see. Our President was prompted to comment recently on the behaviour of parliamentarians. The Speaker of the House has been doing her best to uphold some minimum standards of acceptable conduct.
In our culture, we use banter or ‘picong’ very freely, but what is sometimes represented as ‘picong’ is not seen as amusing by the recipient and may be hurtful. The recipient may then be motivated to respond in kind. In fact, political speech which is hurtful to individuals or groups in the society drains away trust and can incite violence.
During election season, the verbal assaults escalate as the parties move out into the hustings and platform rhetoric is not constrained by parliamentary standing orders but only by law and the speaker’s conscience.
The decibel level at these meetings is higher, the gossip more tantalising, and the barbs and accusations are more cutting in order to titillate the assembled partisan crowds.
Our politicians and leaders generally need to be more circumspect in their use of language based on an awareness that certain kinds of speech may be hurtful or promote violence.
The attitude which our politicians are encouraged to adopt is that of Jesus in His encounter with Zacchaeus, who as a tax collector and self-confessed extortionist would have been reviled by his fellow-citizens.
Jesus engages rather than rejects, going so far as to stay at his house and dine, and He celebrates Zacchaeus’ intention to reform himself. Zacchaeus is a sinner but he is a ‘son of Abraham’ to be recognised and valued as such.
His transgressions are neither overlooked nor excused, because he must be held accountable but at the end of the day, there is forgiveness and the salvation which flows from that.
Politics may be adversarial, but it is also about reconciling competing interests and building bridges among communities. Most political parties have signed the Code of Ethical Political Conduct. This Code is supported by our Archdiocese and other religious organisations, by the media, and by the Transparency Institute. Indeed, the Council for Responsible Political Behaviour which oversees the Code during election time uses Archbishop’s House as its base.
Our politicians of all parties and persuasions must commit themselves individually and collectively to use their speech in ways that, at the very least avoid hurt, resentment, condemnation and the incitement of violence, and wherever possible, they should seek to heal and uplift.