Slugger’s ‘play the ball’ rule and the [ever urgent] quest to bridge diverging communities

So as David has noted, we got a nice mention from Noel Whelan, a long term reader of Slugger, in his OpEd in the Irish Times.

He’d been ruminating on an unsettling trend in southern politics for direct protest, and in the case of Fine Gael Michelle Mulherin in Sligo something a great deal more Northern Irish in flavour.

That, much more than the vocal protests against the President, is particularly worrying aspect of a more general trend towards vocal public protest in the Republic.

Mr Whelan was kind enough to point to our long time maxim, play the ball, and not the man as an examplar of how a rules based engagement can create what is known in the jargon as pro social behaviours even amongst people who profoundly disagree.

He wrote:

Thirteen years ago, when the Northern Ireland blogger Mick Fealty first launched the news and opinion site, he introduced one rigid rule for posts and comments. He sums it up as “play the ball not the man”.

In 2002 online comment was more courteous. Notwithstanding the ongoing peace negotiations, Northern Ireland politics was still brutish and divisive.

Fealty saw the need to ensure that while contributors could and would be encouraged to engage in robust debate on the issues, he and his moderators would not permit personal attacks.

They maintain and monitor that policy to date, which is why Slugger has developed a reputation for hosting a mostly intelligent dialogue on a range of controversial and important issues in Irish and British politics.

A “play the ball, rather than the man (or woman)” rule would be a good starting point for greater civility in our wider public discourse. Our politics is likely to be even more volatile as the election approaches. The potential for an even more abusive political atmosphere is therefore greater.

Now, I am not sure that in 2002 the net was more courteous, but Slugger when commenting first began certainly was, in the sense that people were strangers to each other.

It helped too that we were putting a lot new and often surprising material (archived here, under Unionism: beyond process) from our Long Peace research interviews. The need for the rule only came in when that initial civility began to wear off.

First it was no ad hominem (the word was new to me, I cribbed it (as I do many things) from a readership that was often and remains in aggregate much smarter than me or indeed my fellow bloggers.

The much plainer play the ball and not the man, came from Ian Parsley I think (yep, that long ago Ian!).

I liked it straightaway, one because it wasn’t in Latin and could be easily understood, and two because it was gamesy and fun, and could be seen as encouraging the natural competitiveness of politics.

It’s particular value lies in the fact that the moderator is faced not with the question of what’s politically correct, but what addresses the issue at hand, and what doesn’t.

It evolved further into notional red and yellow cards (the black spot came later) so that we could signal our desire to keep people in the game for the longest possible moment before administering a ban.

From the beginning I was minded to encourage two things: pluralism of view, and strong contention over whatever issue of the day we’d put out for discussion/debate.  It is not one or the other, but both.

In the context of Northern Ireland alone, the toughest challenge has been how to encourage people with diverse identities and backgrounds to work together productively. As Lu Hong and Scott E. Page have noted:

…identity-diverse groups often have more conflict, more problems with communication, and less mutual respect and trust among members.

That’s most often couched in terms of the Outgroup Homogeneity effect, or “they are alike; we are diverse” bias. There are also problems with framing biases, which is one of the reasons we’ve always been keen to bring in a wide variety of voices/perspectives.

In this way we can see the play the ball and not the man rule as a simple heuristic device which allows diverse groups make some form of collective sense of the unfolding chaos around them.

In the Republic the new civic rudeness is less about the mishandling of ethnic diversity than a more generic breakdown of trust between the power centre in Dublin, and those struggling for survival on the edge.

The gap between the disgruntled stories local people tell each other and the absence of a broader narrative is filled by fractured, contradictory and unconvincing stories from government [and opposition] spun from the centre.

And yet whilst the anger may be both palpable and genuine, it is unlikely that any of the problems being endured through the government’s cack handed roll out of Irish Water can get fixed (a wicked problem if there was one) without matching the resources of the centre with those at the edge.

Populism has always been an essential part of representative democracy, but it’s the departure between wet populism and an increasingly dry unlistening technocracy that’s bringing many countries in the west to a crisis.

Yet as much as anger may be transformative, it can also produce suboptimal agency for those genuinely looking for functional change. The critical gap is between between what people want, and what the system can be made to deliver. Or how.

Playing the ball forces people towards thinking about things that matter, rather than just telling us, one by one, who it is they hate. Immigrants, Gays, Protestants, Brits, Greens, Americans: the list is endless dull and repetitive.

And, what’s probably worse, it’s also incapable of generating the new lines of thought [and concrete action] needed to take Ireland into an already turbulent and uncertain 21st Century.

That requires some form of careful bridging that sees ordinary people not as an external group to be bought off, but as a well of essential knowledge about who and what the nation is and what it needs to grow. But, as UK Labour MP John Cruddas put it recently

Our established political parties are in danger of being past their sell by date. Their tribes are shrinking and memberships declining; their hierarchies and bureaucracies too slow and cumbersome.

Arguably they stifle initiative and innovation which hinders adaptation to new circumstances.

Our political parties were once vital, intermediary institutions between the people and the state. But in some parts of the country they have become so disconnected from society that they can no longer fulfill this role properly.

As with open government, there’s no ready pro forma for a way forward. But if there is a wider value for the play the ball approach in politics, it’s as an aid to shared understanding and the identification of ways forward in a complex society.

As Margaret Wheatley has said…

“We need to replace the questions ‘what’s wrong?’ and ‘how can we fix it?’ with two better ones – ‘What’s possible here?’ and ‘who cares?’”

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty