BUSINESS has an obvious right to be heard. Does it not also have an obligation to listen? Right now, anyone who wants to avoid being labelled a stooge is required to denounce the government and the African National Congress (ANC) for their response to Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza. This may say more about the way in which hysteria and groupthink now substitutes for debate than it does about the ANC or Khoza.

The standard version in polite society holds that Khoza expressed valid concerns about the constitution and was met with a torrent of abuse from the government and the ANC. That is at most partly true. Yes, Khoza has a right to express concerns about the constitution. And yes, the government and the ANC responses have ducked the issue. But the righteous indignation ignores something - the fact that Khoza did not stick to the issues himself: he complained of a "strange breed of leaders" and that "our political leadership's moral quotient is degenerating". The "play the ball, not the man" brigade insist Khoza was raising issues of principle and was met with personal slurs. But the slurs began with him. If calling people a "strange breed" and implying they are morally degenerate is not personal, what is? Of course, Khoza is entitled to call political leaders strange and immoral if he wants to - but then neither he nor anyone else should be surprised when personal attacks provoke an equally personal response. He and his many supporters would surely be tempted to respond personally if anyone publicly called them strange and degenerate - why then is it a national scandal if the government and the ANC respond as anyone else would? If you think the government should play the ball rather than the person, then it is a good idea to do the same yourself.

So why is the entire debate seemingly blind to the fact that Khoza's statement started the mud-slinging and that it is no surprise that thin-skinned politicians threw some mud back? Why is it assumed that people in the government have no right to react angrily when they feel they are being insulted?

Part of the answer is that the national debate is now dominated by voices that ensure that anyone who might have anything vaguely positive to say about the government or the governing party is denounced as a hack - or labelled "politically correct" (which has become another way of saying "not bigoted"). Certainly, the government and the ANC do a great deal that richly deserves criticism. But an outsider looking at much of our debate would quickly conclude that we are living in a cross between North Korea and Somalia - a casual look at daily life here shows that we are not. It should be possible to recognise that some things here are going well without becoming a government hack. But it no longer seems possible to do that and also to avoid being insulted by what US economist Paul Krugman calls the "Serious People" - those who police a consensus based not on reality but on the logic of the herd.

This groupthink is supported and justified by an assumption so widespread that it is never questioned - that only the ANC and the government hold power in this country. And so anyone who attacks the government is assumed to be "speaking truth to power" on behalf of the powerless.

The reality is rather different. Business leaders wield power. So do professionals - including, of course, professional journalists. So when Khoza attacks the government, the powerless are not speaking to the power-holders - one power-holder is speaking to another. And private power-holders need to be held to account to the same standards that we apply to those who hold public office. If government leaders have a duty not to stoop to personal attack, then so do the chairmen of the boards of banks.

The Khoza incident is not isolated. The reason our national debate has become so skewed is that it has become the norm to assume that any private power-holder who speaks out on a public issue is beyond reproach, while any government leader is assumed to be a scoundrel. This lets private power-holders off the hook. It also makes rational debate on government actions impossible. If the government is yelled at whatever it does, why should it do anything to accommodate its critics?

The problem is not that the feelings of politicians might be hurt. They can look after themselves - and they do need to handle criticism better than they do. It is that we no longer have a debate in which vigorous criticism is part of a serious attempt to communicate and find common ground.

We all suffer as long as we remain stuck in a rut in which hurling abuse to the applause of the like-minded has become a substitute for rational dialogue. If we want to begin talking to each other again, we need reason rather than ranting - and a recognition that the rules that rightly apply to public power should apply to private power-holders too.

. Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.