The simple and the simplistic

I’m not the first person to suggest that the greatest legacy we received from Classical Athens was the use of μεν and δε: on the one hand, on the other hand – the principle of balanced argument. Balanced argument doesn’t exclude elegant rhetoric, designed to persuade the audience to one point of view rather than the other, but it adds depth and conviction to speech or writing. However, in an age in which the sound-bite has replaced oratory in most public debate and arguments are presented in black and white terms, with no attempt at balance, rhetoric has become empty, depth and conviction have gone, and our legacy from Athens is lost – or at best held in abeyance. In recognising the need for simplicity in expressing a point of view, our public representatives have become simplistic.

This implication hovered over my two previous blogs. In my blog about the EU referendum, in which I declared my voting intention, I attempted to maintain the principle of μεν and δε while indulging in understated rhetoric. In the process I was obliged to lament the virtual absence of balanced argument from public debate about this important issue. In my more tongue-in-cheek blog about metrication I used less understated rhetoric because the argument is already so unbalanced that it’s ceased to be an argument at all; I was challenging what’s become an established position. The amount of balance required and the forcefulness of rhetoric to be used depend on the nature and status of the debate, but there’s never any justification for becoming simplistic.

During the past week or two, news in the U.K. has been dominated by the conclusions of the Hillsborough Inquiry and the fallout from it. For people outside the UK who don’t know the story: ninety-six Liverpool football fans died while attending a match at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield in April 1989. The official (including government) verdict at the time, backed by tabloid newspaper coverage and by what have proved to be doctored and censored police reports, blamed drunken and bellicose Liverpool fans for the tragedy. A public inquiry shortly after the event endorsed this verdict. But the victims’ families knew better, and for twenty-seven years they have campaigned for a full and fair investigation. Such an investigation, backed by a local MP and the Bishop of Liverpool, was begun two years ago and the jury has just returned its verdict: the fans were blameless; they were unlawfully killed; the behaviour at the time and the subsequent mendacity of some senior police officers was condemned and is now likely to be the subject of one or more criminal investigations; the inadequate response of the ambulance service was criticised; the tabloid reports of 1989 were repudiated; and even the insults of government spokespersons at the time have been challenged.

No one questions the jury’s verdict. Everyone has welcomed it. Everyone has praised the victims’ families for their tenacity, commitment and courage over a twenty-seven year interval. Rightly so. But three points are worth adding. First, the story has much wider implications; it’s a “David and Goliath” tale in which the little people, the ordinary people, have challenged the lies and prevarications of officialdom in all their manifestations and have proved justified, offering hope to other ordinary little people in comparable situations. Second, the failure of μεν and δε is once again in evidence; in 1989 the fans were entirely to blame and the police and ambulance services did their best under circumstances made impossible by the activities of drunken louts; now the fans are entirely blameless and the police and ambulance services stand condemned – though it’s clear that many officers and paramedics on the ground did all they could in the absence of adequate leadership. Third, further to this matter of μεν and δε, repudiation of the tabloid accusation against “drunken fans” has led some commentators to conclude that no fans at all were drunk or bellicose. This is not true. I live in a town on the route between Liverpool and Sheffield, and on the day of the fatal match our local police were obliged to ask our pubs to close because Liverpool fans were rampaging drunkenly, abusing citizens and causing damage. Let me emphasise that these drunken nuisances were in no way responsible for the tragedy in the stadium – the jury proved this – and they constituted only a small minority of the travelling fans, but it’s scarcely credible that they were anything but a menace outside the Hillsborough ground where they presumably sought entry; and the now-maligned (and rightly criticised) police no doubt had to contend with them, making it harder for them to deal as required with the terrible events inside the stadium. Thus, the welcome and wonderful verdict of the jury after a long and noble campaign by the victims’ families has been tarnished, albeit only slightly, by a failure to maintain balance of argument.

Every major item of news ought to be subjected to similar critical scrutiny. Our reporters, and our politicians, are apt to present one side of the story while pretending lack of bias, but the people they seek to persuade by their perforce lightweight rhetoric aren’t stupid. They’d earn more public trust, and in the case of politicians they’d win more votes, if they’d remember the principle of μεν and δε.

There’s no harm in keeping things simple, but there’s plenty of harm in being simplistic.


  • I’ve enjoyed reading all these blogs, Mark, even the supposed controversial ones. Your reasoning on the EU referendum is very like Ste’s.
    Me? I’m Mrs undecided-still.

    • Mark Henderson

      It’s hard to be anything but undecided, Margaret. By the end of April I’d become heartily sick of the campaigning on both sides, so I sat down with paper and pencil and wrote 2×2 columns: pro and contra membership 1975, pro and contra membership now. Only by doing that could I arrive at a decision, though it’s still a provisional decision because someone MIGHT yet produce a compelling, clinching argument on one side or the other. In the meantime I don’t expect anyone else to share my priorities or my assessments, but I’d like to think the general model I posted – aiming for a balanced argument – is one that others could use with benefit.

      But it’s pleasing to know I’m not the only person who’s reasoned as I have. I believe Ste and I think similarly about many issues!

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