L’esprit de l’escalier and five things to think about after Nolan Live

Engaging in debate on radio or television is bad for your health. There are many reasons for this, I find, but the main one is that sense, as you drive home, of  l’esprit de l’escalier  – literally the wit of the staircase. That’s  the stage after a debate when you think of all the things you should  have said but didn’t. L’esprit de l’escalier can do bad things for your blood-pressure. But as in every experience in life, it’s important to see what you can learn. Here are a few of things that have emerged for me.


  1.  Radio is bad but TV is worse for political discussion. The time is so limited, even in an hour-long programme, that the surface of an issue can be scratched but nothing more. The inevitable complexities of an issue? Forget it, we’re working against the clock here and we need to keep the audience listening and watching at all costs.
  2. Any attempt to interfere with the official picture of our Troubles will be resisted fiercely. The official picture tells us that stone-throwing degenerated into guns and serious violence when the IRA decided to start killing people. Faced with this motiveless murder, the state reacted, first with the RUC and then with the British Army and the UDR.  Eventually the IRA realised it couldn’t win and stopped. That’s the Authorized Version. Anything else will be declared deranged and probably dangerous.
  3. Of all the pointless questions that could be asked is “Do you support violence?”  That’s like saying “Do you believe in putting people in prison?” The automatic answer tends to be ‘No”,  but a moment’s thought shows the hollowness of the answer. No, I don’t believe in putting people in prison; I think there should be other, more positive ways of working with people deemed guilty of crime so that they can leave their anti-social or cruel behaviour behind them. And when I said ‘No”  I was thinking of putting people in prison when you feel like it (and yes, Virginia, it has indeed happened here).  But to get back to the question of supporting violence, I said I didn’t. Which on reflection was not true. I support violence. So do you. So does Stephen Nolan, and my old chum Nelson and just about anybody I can think of. That’s because we pay taxes, a huge chunk of which is spent on producing well-equipped, highly-trained killers. It’s called the Armed Forces. Is funding the Trident nuclear programme  supporting violence? Yes indeed, and violence of nightmarish dimensions. We also pay for our police service, part of whose duties is to detect and where deemed necessary, forcibly detain those believed to be law-breakers. There may be such a thing as pacifists, but they’re thin on the ground. Most people, I suspect, are like me. They say they don’t support violence because they fear it’d land them in trouble, either immediate in the form of a punch in the face or legal in the form of arrest and detention. Less a matter of principle and more a matter of cowardice.
  4. Language is important, but some language is a distraction. There was much uninformed discussion of the term “terrorism” last night. At one point I tried to point out that terrorism is a methodology of warfare, not a philosophy. In other words, terrorism is when violent actions are used to strike terror into the general population. As a man in the audience said last night, and for which he was laughed at, you can have and do have state terrorism, with Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday prime examples of that. Stephen Nolan painted lurid pictures of people who creep about and put bombs under cars, as distinct from people who wear an army uniform and stand up and, well, fight fair. This is an absurd comparison. What is often called “terrorism” is in fact guerrilla warfare, which as many countries found, including Vietnam and South Africa,  can be extremely effective against a conventional army. But the fact remains that the objective in the end is the same: to kill or threaten to kill your enemy. Regardless of the terminology, the tears of the victims’ families are just as real.
  5. Emotional picture-painting should be banned. At several points last night, Stephen Nolan went to the audience to hear the story of a victim of the Troubles. Let’s leave aside the lack of balance in choice. The trouble with selecting individuals who have suffered through violence in the Troubles is that they are presented as the whole picture. If you don’t accept this person’s take on things here, you are a monster. In fact, those who have suffered are almost be definition the last ones capable of providing a sober, rational analysis of the situation here. That doesn’t mean their suffering isn’t real or doesn’t deserve our compassion. But dwelling on it doesn’t take us any further in coming up with a solution to our situation. More often, it takes rational analysis, ties it up and drops it overboard.

So beware broadcasting debate. Except tightly controlled, it soon descends into a bear-pit of abuse.


Comments are closed.