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Why we need words, not noise pollution in indyref debate

All over Scotland, from the final years of primary onwards, teachers are introducing the skills of debating to their pupils.

Sometimes it's with a view to participation in national, inter-school competitions, mostly it's preparation for more informal discussion in the classroom - in English, Modern Studies, History or the like.

From the age of around eleven then, many Scots youngsters are aware of the simple yet important rules of civilized debate: respect for all speakers, clarity of your case and, having listened carefully to their points, the ability to rebut your opponents.

The commonsense etiquette of debate has evolved over time to ensure the proposition can be heard, the counter arguments made, and the audience can make up their mind or be swayed one way or the other.

So woe betide those teachers who are encouraging their classes to view the television debates or First Minister's Questions in the lead up to the independence referendum. Watching these events, pupils will recognise little of what they have been taught about civilized and effective debating.

The level of encounter is, I suppose, a direct consequence of the way the campaign is being fought by both sides. From the equating of Alex Salmond with independence to some of the more vicious online comments from both sides, personal antipathy has all but driven out reasoned debate.

Rather than arguing with information, rebutting the opposition's points, and making their case, one way or the other, speakers are tending to insert a tranch of pre-prepared sound bites, shouting over their opponent if necessary, so that we end up with statistics rather like those at the end of a football match on percentage possession.

Supporters cheer from the sidelines, while the undecided, defeated in their search for information, drift towards apathy.

Apart from the importance of this decision for Scotland's future, the insult that such behaviour gives to the voters is unspeakable, slight pun intended.

The embarrassing attempt by the Labour Leader to appropriate The Proclaimers' lyrics was a case in point. Her words were, no doubt, provided by an assistant too young or ignorant to know the context of the original song - a cry for independence against Westminster decisions. However, no matter, if a space can be won on the evening news.

On the day of the 'two cabinets' in Aberdeen, some young lads were asked for their opinion in a 'vox pop' on the street. One lad shook his head and said: "I've no time for politicians, they just spend the tax payers' money."

Well, yes - that's what we vote them in to do - but it's not surprising that lad didn't realise that, when so often voters are given slogans instead of information, personal slurs instead of reasoned argument.

To be fair, at local meetings around the land, good debate is still heard - but it is the leading politicians who receive the publicity and air time. They have a responsibility -to the debate and to the voters.

Meanwhile, teachers all over the country are searching for an answer to the questions: "Why are those politicians getting all shouty instead of following the rules? Why can't we hear what they're saying?"

Scotland is all ears - but we need words, not noise pollution.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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