SA needs better quality argument

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Independent Newspapers.

Adriaan Groenewald.

On his blog, Gareth Cliff recently wrote this when he referred to the Oscar Pistorius trial at its early stages: “What is being tried is the quality of argument, and it appears South Africans aren’t terribly good at it.”

By now he may have changed his views about the specific attorneys concerned, but a question of whether South Africans need to raise their quality of argument or debate remains open.

To build on his comment… We recently interviewed and wrote about Dr Iqbal Survé on the BR Leadership Platform page. Our sin of commission seems to have been to dare write something positive about him. This opened up a can of worms, mostly from individuals in the media fraternity, and even individuals within the Independent media stable, of which he is now the chairman and part owner.

The arguments were almost all one-sided, not for a moment considering that there was something to learn from the piece; arguments with no substance and mostly smelling of immaturity, at the level of a school child that would mock a peer that dares to say or do something positive about and for a teacher who probably deserves it; a teacher that teaches them life skills and strives to make a difference in the lives of children; but of course who is not perfect.

Why did this happen, when this specific platform has interviewed leaders from all walks of life, including our controversial President Jacob Zuma, news hogger Julius Malema and Helen Zille. We have written as objectively as possible about black, white, men, woman, politicians, business leaders, entertainment and sporting leaders. Granted I have often leaned towards positive angles, perhaps because media is biased towards negativity and bad news and I am not a journalist by trade, yet we have managed to raise controversial and necessary issues within the realm of wanting to be part of the solution – last weeks column was on why leaders fail being an example.

The platform is about placing all types of leaders on it to share their views on leadership and the fast changing, challenging environment within which they and our readers operate. The platform is about giving all types of leaders an opportunity to contribute towards the pool of leadership knowledge and awareness, so that the country can somehow continue strengthening its leadership legacy, of which we have been examples to the world.

So, why not interview an influential leader who intends on changing, hopefully for the good, a media platform that reaches and influences approximately 35 million readers every week? Because the platform happens to be in a newspaper, does that mean influential leaders of media entities, especially newspapers, may not share their views on it? Or, because the platform happens to be in the Independent Newspaper stable we may only interview leaders of its competitors? If we want top leaders to share their views and experience, and we want the leadership dialogue to be broad, comprehensive and substantive, we need to cover leaders from all areas of society – political, business, civic, sports, education and yes, media.

I propose that in confronting an issue up for debate or argument, a mature leader considers or abides by the following:

1. The motive for raising the issue is a pure one. It is not to simply solicit attention, boost or break down reputation. In short, their motives serve the bigger picture and not their own selfish agenda.

2. If at all possible, they stick to the facts and don’t make sweeping, all inclusive negative statements, like “All politicians are corrupt”, or “The entire education system is failing”, or in this instance, “The writers are clearly looking for promotion and higher salaries” or “And the authors have forever sold their integrity for a paltry pay check and a pat on the head by their great Helmsman”.

3. When they raise a negative concern or issue and it is a mere perception they will emphasise that it is such. In other words, they may state: “It is the perception of many that a large majority of politicians are corrupt”, or “It is my perception that Adriaan’s article is actually about wanting a higher salary and promotion, and that he has lost his integrity”.

4. Where possible they recognise the opposite side or possibility of their statement or argument, for example: “Most people seem to feel the education system is failing horribly. However, there seem to be clear pockets of excellence, for which we are grateful.”

5. They give context for the reason behind their perception. In other words, they link it to the bigger aspiration or purpose, for example: “It seems Adriaan has ulterior motives in writing this article, unless he is an Independent contributor that writes his own cheque. This is, however, an important debate because we can’t afford owners of media houses to interfere the independence of editorial content.”

6. Finally, sometimes it is also appropriate to not only criticise or accuse but after applying the principles above, propose a solution.

To engage in healthy argument or debate, a mature person or leader of substance always considers the big picture, both sides of the argument as best he can, does not make irrational emotional remarks, remains calm, remains true to his principles and values, respects another’s right to differ, does not get personal but focuses on the issue, and realises that his own insight can never ever be the only perfectly true version.

Some time back I was asked by someone at the National Planning Commission to make a contribution on what kind of leader we need. We concluded that the country needs SHARP leaders: SHAring – of their time, resources and experience; Respecting: of diversity, different opinions and of one another’s human rights; Performing: at all times – delivery, achievement and positive movement.

As far as the debate on the BR Leadership Platform is concerned, we strive to allow all kinds of leaders to SHARE and become part of the leadership dialogue; we RESPECT all types of leaders and one another’s right to differ; and we hope to inspire great leadership so that South Africa can PERFORM and move closer towards its potential.

In Cliff’s concluding remarks on his blog he states: “Argument has become a fine art and most people are incapable of it, even those we expect to have enhanced strategies to employ in the exercise of it.”

Perhaps factors like social media has influenced negatively the depth of argument and the need for applying the above principles. We judge rashly, quickly, shoot from the hip and move on to yet another empty, accusatory hollow argument that does society no good at all.

In short, I agree with Cliff’s assessment as this has unfortunately been my personal experience. However, fortunately there are pockets of excellence where healthy, mature and solution-driven debate and argument happen. Please, let us raise our quality of arguments and debate, for the good of our country.

Adriaan Groenewald, a lead contributor to the BR Leadership Platform, is a leadership expert and managing director and co-founder of Leadership Platform (www.leadershipplatform.com / or follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP). Send comments to adriaan@leadershipplatform.com or to Business Report editor: ellis.mnyandu@inl.co.za (@Ellis_Mnyandu)


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