The time since the pandemic struck has been a period of isolation but not of silence, at least as far as US politics is concerned. The first debate between US President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden held last month was, not to put too fine a point on it, not a debate at all. At one point, fed up with Trump’s interruptions, jibes and taunts, Biden asked his rival to “shut up”, and even called him a “clown”. Trump managed to frustrate the moderator as well, who, too, was barely allowed to finish a sentence. For the final debate, to be held on Thursday, the bipartisan debate commission has decided that the producers of the debate will be given a “mute” button. On every issue, when each candidate gets two minutes to speak, his opponent will be remotely silenced.
The mute button might not work out that well: The speaker’s microphone could pick up the mutterings of his opponent. Also, even if the viewing public cannot hear the interruptions, the candidates can. The larger issue is the need to silence people who are contesting for high public office — an admission that grown-ups seeking election cannot be trusted to follow the same rules that school-going teenagers in debating societies do.
Trump and his campaign have already called the mute button partisan and unfair. But the problem of a coarse public discourse will not go away, nor is it limited to the US alone. There is no technical solution to the problem of grand egos and the inability or unwillingness to listen to those who disagree. In the age of social media, when politicians have managed to replace public debate and press conferences with pulpits and Twitter accounts, there is no mute button strong enough to ensure a civil discussion.
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