"A timid question will always receive a confident answer". I have occasionally tested the truth of this adage and it seems to hold up. Timid questions result either from the questioner’s lack of knowledge about the subject or their deference to the person being questioned - classic examples can be seen in 1950s film clips of interviews with those figures of authority whose privileged backgrounds and exclusive access to information enabled them to steamroller any potential argument.
The rise of mass media in recent times has eroded such advantage by enabling more people to keep abreast of events and form their own opinions. Good interviewers nowadays are confident and skilled in probing defences and pressing for answers. But to no avail: a counter-measure has been widely adopted. Known as ‘media training’ it involves not answering questions but ignoring them in favour of spouting one’s views regardless. This technique threatens to kill the art of argument (as in ‘discussion’) stone dead and is also responsible, in our household at least, for a great deal of shouting at the radio and TV.
But this last, long weekend brought a temporary respite from such intellectual frustrations as we ventured into Yorkshire for some hiking on the moors, a little quiet reading and several good dinners. Actually the main motivation for leaving town was the onset of the annual Gay Pride celebration, a laudable and popular event, but one which entails three days and nights of exhibitionism and an awful lot of passé disco music, much of which takes place on our doorstep. The Yorkshire moors proved to be the perfect antidote to this excess: during one memorable five-hour hike, in exceptionally fine weather, we met only one other couple.
My first morning back in the city, however, was a sharp contrast. Within 15 minutes of walking I had two near collisions with miscreant cyclists, one whom was riding at speed on the pavement, ignoring the cycle lane provided alongside it and the other of whom was riding in the wrong direction up the one-way street which I was about to cross. Where is respect for the social compact that enables us to live together amicably? Where is law enforcement when you need it? Listening to a news item later that day concerning Detroit’s bankruptcy and its inability to afford an adequate police force, I began to fear that, given the recent cut-backs at home, we may soon be in the same position.
There was also an item on the protests against culling our native badger population as a means of controlling the spread of bovine tuberculosis. Government has made a decision to proceed, although there is some vociferous dissent. I would like to be able to make up my mind about it but to do so would involve mastering all the facts put forward by various experts. Whether those who have decided which side they are on have done so rationally or emotionally is questionable.
An interview with one anti-cull supporter was a case in point. She was set to oppose the legislated cull by whatever means – including the harassment of individuals involved – but refused to reveal her name for fear she might herself be harassed. The interviewer asked her how she could justify unlawfully opposing legally sanctioned activity - but she ignored the question. Did she not understand the argument or was she yet another media-trained spokesperson? It was difficult to tell, but it had me shouting at the radio once more.
If you were to ask me whether culling badgers is an effective means of controlling bovine tuberculosis, I would be unable to give you an answer which is based on consideration of all the facts. If you were to ask me whether culling cyclists would be an effective way to enforce traffic regulations, I could make a pretty strong case for it.