Democracy, free speech and responsible leadership
The surge in concerning rhetoric not only threatens to undermine the foundational principles of respectful dialogue but also challenges the delicate balance upon which democratic societies are built.

As Jamaica slowly embarks on its political silly season — heightened by the intensity and theatrics of a yet-to-be-announced upcoming local government election cycle — our political dialogue has taken on an even sharper edge. Recent statements and rhetoric from a certain politician have raised alarms and drew condemnation from society.

This surge in concerning rhetoric not only threatens to undermine the foundational principles of respectful dialogue but also challenges the delicate balance upon which democratic societies are built. It's imperative to reflect on and address these developments to safeguard the integrity and health of our political ecosystem. This period, traditionally marked by robust campaigning, fervent rallies, and dynamic public engagements, is not just a testament to Jamaica's thriving democratic ethos but also signifies the deep-rooted involvement of Jamaicans in shaping the nation's future.

In our globally connected era, the reverberations of political discourse ripple well beyond a country's shores. The international community, which is already contending with the multifaceted challenges posed by misinformation and polarising narratives, is becoming increasingly alert to the burgeoning wave of verbal imprudence originating from different political epicentres, Jamaica is one of them.

Jamaica has always been celebrated for its spirited dialogues and lively discussions but risks being eclipsed by this perilous inclination. And this isn't an isolated phenomenon, across continents, from Asia to the Americas, the very fabric of democratic traditions is being strained by a surge in inflammatory and divisive political speech.

Nelson Mandela.

In the Philippines, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Rodrigo Duterte, who later became the president, was known for his controversial remarks. His often off-the-cuff statements ranged from comments about crime and vigilantism to remarks that were seen as dismissive of human rights. Similarly, in the United States, the 2016 and 2020 election cycles saw a significant increase in polarised rhetoric, with candidates and their supporters often employing divisive language that was seen by many as detrimental to the country's democratic values. This was particularly evident in online spaces in which misinformation and inflammatory speech rapidly spread through platforms like X, formerly Twitter, and Facebook. Such examples underscore the global nature of this issue, emphasising the importance of responsible political discourse in maintaining the integrity and functionality of democracies worldwide.

More alarmingly, unchecked rhetoric has the power to do more than just offend. It can incite violence, deepen societal divisions, and undermine the foundational principles of democracy. As seen in various parts of the world, fiery words can lead to real-world actions with devastating consequences. This is why we need to vaccinate politicians against verbal recklessness.

To ensure the continued strength and respectability of democratic institutions everywhere, it's crucial that the political discourse remains rooted in principles of respect, factual integrity, and mutual understanding. Jamaica, with its rich history of democratic participation and vibrant cultural exchange, can and should lead by example. As global stakeholders in the project of democracy, it is up to citizens, media, and institutions alike to champion a more responsible and inclusive political dialogue.

Certainly, the dynamic and impassioned nature of political discourse is a cherished facet of vibrant democracies worldwide. It's a theatre in which politicians not only advocate for their policies but also captivate audiences, engage with constituents, and rally support. The art of oratory, after all, is about persuasion, eliciting emotions, and inspiring change. A great speech can indeed be the catalyst for significant societal transformation.

Barack Obama

However, it's crucial to remember that this doesn't necessitate resorting to incendiary language or divisive tactics. Politicians have, throughout history, demonstrated the ability to deliver stirring speeches that are both exciting and enlightening without resorting to demagoguery. Think of figures like Nelson Mandela, whose eloquence united a divided nation, or leaders like Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, who've communicated complex ideas with both charisma and clarity.

Politicians can indeed walk the fine line between keeping their speeches interesting and maintaining respect and decorum. By focusing on conveying their political philosophy, casting a compelling vision for the future, and addressing the aspirations and concerns of their constituents, they can enrich the political discourse. This kind of speech not only fosters a more informed electorate but also builds bridges, fostering a sense of shared purpose and unity, even amidst disagreements.

Freedom of speech and responsible leadership

I heard one politician claiming that he has the right to free speech (and he is correct), but with that right comes the responsibility to communicate with prudence and respect for the greater good of society. The right to freedom of speech, even for politicians, comes with boundaries.

It's crucial to understand that political discourse, regardless of it being disseminated on public platforms, cannot be employed as a tool to undermine or annihilate other core rights or the foundational values of esteemed institutions, for example, the free press. Such speech falls outside the protective umbrella of free expression.

Owing to their elevated status and widespread influence, politicians shoulder a heightened responsibility. Their prominence not only amplifies their voice but also the consequences of their words. Thus, it is imperative for them to exercise caution and avoid indulging in such transgressions, ensuring that their rhetoric uplifts rather than degrades.

At the heart of responsible leadership lies the foundation of mutual respect, engaged dialogue, and a deep-seated dedication to the collective well-being. When those entrusted with positions of influence and authority stray from these cardinal virtues, it borders on the irrational and erratic. An indispensable facet of outstanding leadership is the mastery of language. When employed with discernment and genuine intention, language becomes an unparalleled instrument, one capable of sparking transformative change, galvanising individuals into action and fostering a sense of unity and camaraderie. As elucidated by the renowned American sociologist Charles Cooley, "All leadership unfolds through the articulation of ideas to the minds of others." In this essence, leaders must be ever mindful of the weight and power their words carry, ensuring they remain instruments of inspiration rather than division.

I am tired of the cave man type of political rhetoric. It is time for a more sophisticated discourse. In the age of rapid information dissemination and sound bite culture, it's more vital than ever for politicians to harness the power of words responsibly. Words, when used judiciously, can be the bedrock of trust, collaboration, and progress, encapsulating the essence of what democratic dialogue should truly represent.

Come on! Get it together, politicians, you know yourselves.

Dr Henry Lewis Jr is an associate professor at University of Technology, Jamaica, in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. He is also a social scientist and executive life coach. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or

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