Calming the passions

When Spaniards meet over matters of collective interest, they continually interrupt and attack each other

François Bayrou was the only French politician who did not interrupt his campaign after the killings in Toulouse. This centrist candidate, who, the polls say, has no chance against either Hollande or Sarkozy, did something more interesting: he used a speech to call attention to the degree of violence and tension that he perceives in the language and attitude of wide sectors in France. The killer of the ethnically North African soldiers and the Jewish children certainly acted alone, moved by a personal fury; but, says Bayrou, "this sort of madness festers in a society where violence and stigmatization keep rising."

All this has to do with the authorities. "The public leaders, the politicians, have an obligation to oversee what is going on in society. They have an obligation to see to it that passions, tensions and hatred are not being continually nourished and flaunted."

Bayrou, founder of the European Democratic Party, and a former education minister, believes that politicians should keep a close watch on what is happening in society, and listen to what is being said: but not to further nourish currents that are already dominant. They should, rather, prevent certain frontiers from being crossed "into the terrain of drama."

"Certain words are pronounced, and these words become avalanches, and sometimes fall on madmen."

Politicians have an obligation, especially in times of crisis, to moderate passions, to avoid fomenting confrontations, to do their best to cultivate scenarios in which real debate takes place, and not tooth-and-nail attack. This would be a space for criticism and not insult; where the weaker figures are allowed to express themselves; and where dialogue is prevented from drifting in the direction of drama.

Any Spanish person who has ever attended a meeting of residents who own flats in the same building will know exactly what Bayrou is talking about, having noticed how his neighbors tend to express themselves as if they were on one of the reality/talk shows that infest most of our country's private television channels, where people vent their personal rancor on each other in vicious language.

No doubt encouraged by the example that they daily see on television, it often happens that when Spaniards meet to deal with matters of collective interest, they continually interrupt and prevent the other person from speaking, attacking each other verbally with such passion that it seems to proceed from real, visceral hatred. Just as on the TV shows - but without distinction between what is reality and what is mere, shoddy spectacle.

The public powers, the authorities, as Bayrou says, ought to listen and keep their ears open, paying far more attention than they do to this deterioration. They need to keep an eye on the fact that this downward slope is a perilous one - all the more so in times of crisis and of a transformation as brutal as the one that now seems to be in the offing.

This does not mean suppressing the most aggressive and filthiest (and cheapest) programs on the private television channels. But it does mean it is time for consideration, and, as Bayrou reminds us, for remembering a real social necessity. It is really necessary that all the people in society, who are often called upon to consider serious questions of common interest, should be able to talk reasonably to one another.

This is why it is so important that Spain's new Popular Party government should refrain from wrecking the public television channel, TVE, by cutting back its budget so much as to prevent it from competing as the preferred channel of the Spanish public. Only with a decent budget can it preserve the levels of quality and impartiality that it now possesses.

It is impossible to question the advantages in terms of citizenship and public life (in terms of the Republic, as a Frenchman might put it) of the Spanish public television system, in comparison to the present programming of most of the private television channels.

A popular public television system influences the habits we acquire through the daily repetition of similar audiovisual input. To wreck TVE's audience percentages, to the profit of private channels that continually incite to confrontation and insult, would be an irresponsible political decision, at a time when the public needs examples of reasonable coexistence, and not of hostility and verbal eye-gouging.


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