Are you honest, Mr. Ghia?

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As some of you may know, I am a frequent and long-time participant in televised political discussions. Friends have often advised me not to waste my time (implying that I should not stoop to that level). I admit that the intellectual quality of TV debates is less than satisfying, but I still believe that discussion in the society is absolutely necessary. As for the breadth and depth of that discussion – it corresponds to the resources we have available.

TV political discussions as a rule are formulaic: I am assigned a specific role – that of a “pro-government expert” – and pitted against opponents renowned for their criticism of the government. And there the dividing line is drawn. I for one do not like such narrow demarcation of character. What if I am in the mood to lash out at the government on any given day on any given issue? But the TV-debate genre has fixed rules and I have learned to play by those rules of the game.

Despite my long experience, however, I still have not gotten used to remarks like “Now, Mr. Ghia, are you sincere in saying that?” or “Please, answer (at least) this question sincerely…” or “Are you really saying what you really mean?” After repeated instances of having such questions posed to me, I would like to take this opportunity once again to say – sincerely – what I really mean: Divisive remarks masked as probing questions devalue political discourse.

I recognize that a person making such off-handed remarks may not even understand that they are offensive. I am also aware that giving personal offence – or even, say, throwing water into the face of an opponent – is considered an acceptable tactic in Georgian political debates. I am well aware of those communication pitfalls. The bigger problem as I see it is that the person making such remarks does not appreciate that giving offence so casually strips the very discussion of any purpose. Here I draw my own dividing line between offence, on the one hand, and pointless discussion, on the other.

The offence in such remarks is that you are essentially calling an opponent a liar, intimating what that person says is not what he/she thinks but what he/she has been instructed to say (presumably at someone else’s behest). This has a boomerang effect. It backfires on the questioner because it raises doubt about the questioner’s own veracity. The viewer is left to wonder why – if the questioner instinctively thinks that about other people – anyone should believe in the questioner’s sincerity.

The senselessness of proceeding from that point is, if you assume that your opponent is someone else’s proxy then what is the value of debating with him? What productive outcome could you possibly hope to achieve? Sure, you may be able to trample on your opponent and maybe enjoy a laugh or two at his/her expense. You might even get your opponent to say something which he/she never intended to say. But how does any of that contribute to enlightened political discourse?

Professional advocates for democracy constantly lament about a lack of public debates (especially on national TV channels). I can tell you that is not where our problem lies. In my opinion, we have far too many programs with far too few resources for interesting discussion or informed debate. What passes these days for “discussion” and “debate” is nothing more than a sport once fairly compared to cockfighting by a leading polemicist of the government. According to the rules of the game, there is no room for thoughtful dialogue.

Healthy democracy requires a robust exchange of opposing views, positions, arguments. Instead of informed discussion, we are given clichéd one-sided, superlative-laden exchanges. Those, I suspect, are intended just to show foreigners that political opinions are being exchanged rather than meant in any way to raise the level of political discourse.

Why are things this way in Georgia? I see two possible explanations, both of them deeply rooted in the Georgian psyche. First, people (not only politicians) here tend to speak not for the purpose of expressing their opinions but for the purpose of hiding them. I remember one Georgian who, having just returned from Germany, boasted that Georgians were much smarter than Germans. When I asked him to identify a concrete indicator supporting that proposition, he said without hesitation and with a lot of pride, “I can deceive a German much easily than vice versa.”

Speaking the truth is not the norm here; it is the exception which some cynics perceive as a weakness. Most Georgians have learned not to expect the truth from another person, though on rare occasion the truth may be delivered like a special blessing. When that happens, the “honest” person is elevated to the status of saint and takes on a spiritual mantle; you believe in his/her sincerity just as you might in the trinity of God. Honesty is such a unique quality that even serious people can be heard to say such non-serious things as “That person deserves to be Prime Minister because he is honest.”

At the other end of the spiritual spectrum, lying and insincerity are not considered sins at all. The reasoning: Are we all not insincere? Why then should anyone feel offended when accused of insincerity?

There is a second major obstacle blocking meaningful discourse, and that is accepting the idea that someone else could have a credible opinion that is different from yours. For many, it is inconceivable that honest and intelligent persons may disagree on one and the same issue: “Hey, man, how can you say the opposite when this is how it is? No one could say that sincerely and, therefore, you lie.”

Different opinions cannot possibly co-exist – only different lies which “play to the advantage” of different sides. People differ not according to their views but according to “whom” they side with. And they always side with “someone,” either because they are personally rewarded for doing so or because personal relations (what else?) compel them to do so.

It is very difficult indeed for people in Georgia to admit that someone else can sincerely differ about an issue on which they are one-hundred-percent certain their opinion is the only correct one. It is far easier – and much more convenient – to believe in conspiracy theories. It took Europe many centuries to come to terms with the notion that a person professing a different belief (whether religious, philosophical or political) could at the same time be an honest and intelligent person. Let’s hope it doesn’t take Georgia that long to learn what it takes to become a truly free society.

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 108, published 9 July 2012.

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