Some members of the electorate in a queue waiting to cast their vote in one of the general elections
Some members of the electorate in a queue waiting to cast their vote in one of the general elections
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Is partisanship destroying our moral fibre?

Why do we engage in politics? Why do we engage in public debates over matters concerning Ghana? What informs the positions we take and the side we choose? What motivates us to be active citizens? 

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A good friend often used to say to me we engage “For God and Country.” Lately, when I observe our sharpened partisan edges, I have expanded the statement to “For God, Country and Party.” As to whether that is the order in which our motivations operate is a conversation for another day. 

Political partisans

But it just occurred to me that in an election year, active citizens are likely to run into the cross hairs of political partisans. I have, in the past, written about the cost of active citizenship and the burdens placed by the State and other citizens on those who venture into the public square to raise concerns about the state of governance in the country.

How do you respond as an active citizen should this happen to you? Here is my answer. In February 2001, United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute.

He titled the speech “Be Not Afraid.” Twenty-three years later I regularly go back to read it because, regardless of how one feels about Justice Thomas’ politics and jurisprudence on the court, it is one of the best on the issue of active citizenship.

Let me share with you a few excerpts of the speech with the hope that it helps every active citizen this election year navigate successfully our politically charged partisan public spaces.

Active citizens are likely to raise questions about the policy ideas and proposals being put forth by the political parties and their candidates. I do not believe such questions are ill intended.

After all, if these policy ideas and proposals are about moving the country’s development needle in a positive direction, then it must be subjected to scrutiny. However, it is not always the case that such scrutiny is well received by partisans.

Here is what Justice Thomas offers as a guide – “None of us really believes that the things we fear discussing honestly these days are really trivial—and the reaction of our critics shows that we are right. If our dissents are so trivial, why are their reactions so intense?”

Sometimes, the push back to well-intentioned questions and comments on public issues is such that one is tempted to be extremely careful the next time they choose to raise their voice.

Justice Thomas responds as follows “A good argument diluted to avoid criticism is not nearly as good as the undiluted argument, because we best arrive at truth through a process of honest and vigorous debate. Arguments should not sneak around in disguise, as if dissent were somehow sinister. One should not be cowed by criticism.” 

Debate

An honest and vigorous debate however should not mean that we are careless in how we treat each other. I shared last weekend that one of the president’s concerns about democracy in Ghana is the quality of public discourse and how dissenting views are handled.

 Justice Thomas offers the same piece of advice when he says “None of us should be uncivil in our manner as we debate issues of consequence. No matter how difficult it is, good manners should be routine.”

 But even as he urges us to be civil, Justice Thomas also warns us not to lose sight of what is important by being too civil – “The insistence on civility in the form of our debates has the perverse effect of cannibalising our principles, the very essence of a civil society.”

In essence, we must find a way to balance being civil with speaking truthfully about the challenges our country faces and how best to address them. In our current political environment, active citizens are likely to retreat from public spaces and choose disengagement from all national issues.

 And as someone who once incurred the displeasure of partisans, I can understand why this approach becomes a safer option. In those moments, you ask yourself “is it really worth it?”

 Interestingly, Justice Thomas still believes that despite the high cost of active citizenship, it is still worthwhile to engage in public spaces. In his own words, he articulated the following – “What makes it all worthwhile?

What makes it worthwhile is something greater than all of us. There are those things that at one time we all accepted as more important than our comfort or discomfort—if not our very lives: Duty, honour, country! There was a time when all was to be set aside for these.

 The plow was left idle, the hearth without fire, the homestead, abandoned.” We are called upon as citizens to be actively engaged for country. 

The writer is the Project Director, Democracy Project

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