Taking responsibility for statements Editorial
Stabroek News
October 8, 2002

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Recently letter writers have made the point that public figures must take moral responsibility for statements they make or arguments they put forward. If, therefore, one makes a contentious or inflammatory proposition without having the facts or figures to support this and this contributes to subsequent unrest one cannot disclaim all responsibility and, so to speak, wash one's hands of the matter.

A moment's thought will show us that ideas have had an enormous effect on history. Religious leaders (Jesus Christ, the Prophet Mohammed, Gautama Buddha) have left behind them religions which have changed the world. At the secular level, the ideology of Karl Marx was one of the dominant influences in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, leading as it did to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the emergence of the Soviet Union. It was famously said that we are all the slaves of some defunct economist (or philosopher) in the sense that their concepts (the invisible hand, the social contract) have become a part of the intellectual currency in which we trade. Indeed, genuine intellectual innovations are rare.

Ideas and public statements are not neutral, they cause people to think and sometimes lead them to action. If therefore one puts forward inflammatory ideas or makes statements that can easily be interpreted as destabilising in effect one cannot shirk the consequences.

Yet is has become all too common to hear statements made that are absurd and provocative. It is, perhaps, a sign of the debasement of the social and political culture where the whole political game becomes a kind of deadly picong and mauvaise laugue. Indeed the manner in which our politicians speak of each other has for a long time left a great deal to be desired, there are no rules and not even a minimal level of decorum, accusations are made wildly.

The end result is a debased public dialogue and a pollution of facts and ideas where any level of truth becomes difficult to grasp. Some of it is due to laziness. People make statements on subjects without making any or any adequate effort to check the facts. Some of it is due to a lack of understanding of the issues involved. And some statements are deliberately false or the speaker or writer is recklessly careless whether they are true or false, interested only in spreading partisan propaganda.

All of this takes its toll on society as progress requires clear thinking. It is also important to keep an open mind and to listen carefully to what others are saying, especially if they are challenging views one holds.

Yet experience has shown that opinion formers rarely admit they were wrong and take responsibility for their errors. They or their acolytes try to revise or reinterpret what they said to account for new facts that don't fit in to the equation or introduce saving clauses to explain why the predictions did not come true as Karl Popper had shown in his devastating critique of Marxism.

We all make mistakes and this becomes more likely as the topic becomes more complex and the variables increase. But the minimum one should expect from those who throw their hats in the ring of public debate is good faith and some level of industry. Ultimately, if we are to make progress with the process of nation building, as distinct from national disintegration we will have to achieve a higher level of seriousness about the concepts we put forward and the public statements we make.