Nasty work if you can get it

It’s exactly a week since Boris’s nightmare interview with Eddie Mair on the Andrew Marr Show.

“You’re a nasty piece of work” was Mair’s now famous put down. This piece is not to endorse that view. Nor is it to echo Boris’s father Stanley or his friend Darius Guppy in mounting a staunch defence of the Mayor of London.

My worry is that we have developed a new bad habit – universal adversarialism. Or to put it less politely, it’s open season for everyone slagging off everyone else. We have an adversarial parliamentary system – which is unlike, for instance, the USA. They seem to have survived without it for nearly 240 years and governed themselves adequately. We have an adversarial legal system. Policing is largely adversarial. Sport is almost entirely adversarial.

As to the ‘Fourth Estate’, both broadcast and print media are increasingly confrontational. Not that that is anything new. Even before he was sent to jail, Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891, ‘In old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralising. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.’

Slagging off on TV and radio is of course not confined to editorial pieces. Audience participation shows like Question Time and Any Questions actively encourage members of the public to join in and attack their tribunes and prominent citizens in general. Plays, soaps and movies are packed full of aggression and verbal abuse – echoing no doubt what is happening behind closed doors in hundreds of thousands of households.
I am commenting on a social trend, not advocating censorship. In all relatively free societies from the days of the Greek agora and the Roman Forum down to Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year, there has been a tradition of popular protest. Even under totalitarian regimes brave souls have risked their lives by criticising those in power.

Nor is it wrong to argue and debate. I strongly recommend a book by Susan Scott, an American consultant – Fierce Conversations (Berkeley Trade, 2004) – in which she urges the reader not to shirk difficult debates with everyone in their lives, where necessary, including oneself.

I worry about the way adversarialism is delivered. My concern is that from children upwards we are all starting to see confrontation as the default setting, rudeness as a stock in trade, and aggression as a natural way to debate. You see it in road rage. You even see it on pavements and in the Tube. Watch a junior football, rugby or cricket match. I am not sure what is worse – the language and demeanour of the kids, or that of their parents on the touchline or boundary.

I am dedicated to helping everyone make better decisions. That is why I wrote my book Decide, and why I am now hard at work on its successor. The crucial cauldron for decision making by teams and organisations is the endless series of meetings they all rely on. Meetings are at the same time the most frustrating part of decision making (because they seldom produce any decision whatsoever), and the best hope, because decision making is precisely what the meeting was designed to achieve.

But check out your friendly local meeting. Is the atmosphere collegiate? Is the language calm and urbane? You must be joking. Inevitably confrontation now dogs the meeting as it threatens to poison the rest of our life. And because confrontation is unconstructive, it impedes debate and reduces the chance of arriving at a decision.

I say it is time to blow a whistle, to sound a warning, to call a halt to the slagging off. If we can achieve any progress in this direction, we will start to see that we can make far more progress by debating and discussing in what we used to call a civilised fashion.

And then, Mr Mair, calling someone a “nasty piece of work” will say more (and not in a nice way) about the slagger, and less about the slagged.