I’ll make a general point. I don’t know if it’s a new thing, perhaps it’s always been the case, but there are attitudes that come up frequently, to varying degrees, that are deeply corrosive to public discourse and run much deeper than intemperate language or being a bit rude.
Firstly, there’s an attitude that the right to express an opinion, somehow itself conveys legitimacy to that opinion; that because people are meant to respect the right to express an opinion, they have to respect the opinion being expressed.
This attitude leads to some people being deeply affronted when their opinions are challenged. They may even confuse criticism with an attack on their right to express an opinion. I’ve heard it expressed that in a democracy one should be able to express an opinion without fear of ridicule.
If people ridicule what you’ve said, they're also exercising their right to express an opinion. It doesn’t mean people are trying to silence you, or prevent you from giving your point of view. They just think what you said was ridiculous. Ok, if ridicule is the first or only response then that’s not conducive to public discourse either, but if people persist in saying silly things it’s not an unreasonable response.
The other aspect to this attitude about the right to express an opinion, is that it gives people the confidence to express an opinion regardless of how much they know about something.
To be fair all of us are, for the most part, hopelessly ignorant. The scope of knowledge is too great for any of us to know all but a fraction of it. We may know a couple of topics or issues in detail, a few more to a reasonable degree, but beyond that we’re winging it. But that doesn’t stop people expressing their opinions. It happens all the time; phone-ins, talk shows, ‘text us what you think about this morning’s topic’, the people who appear on Question Time etc. People rarely know much about what they’re talking about but by god it doesn’t stop them.
And most of us, perhaps all of us, overestimate our competence in areas because we seek affirmation. We probably mix with people that have similar opinions, we read newspapers that reflect our opinions, watch programmes that accord with our view of the world, frequent web-sites that tell us what we want to hear. If we're constantly getting reinforcement that our views and opinions are correct, and we aren’t being challenged, is it any wonder if we begin to think we’re a pretty good judge of things. Which in turn gives the confidence to express opinions, regardless of how little we might know about a subject.
Actually finding stuff out and checking things is time consuming, and if you’re clearly a pretty good judge of things (as everything you read, see or hear confirms) then why bother?
And if countervailing evidence is presented, or a claim is even shown to be incorrect, it’s frequently unwelcome; because facts are far less important to people than their right to express an opinion.
As it happens a stark expression of that was PPAG’s response to the special meeting. The accusation was that they had made factual claims that were unsupportable or simply wrong. In response to that PPAG made no attempt to defend the factual accuracy of what they said. The response was simply that they had a right to express an opinion, those were their opinions, and that was the end of it.
But if the truth or otherwise of what people say doesn't matter, if people aren't willing to justify what they say or acknowledge when they are wrong, if everything is just an opinion, then there's no possibility of a meaningful discourse, civil or otherwise.