Agree to differ, again


Thank you to everyone who responded to last Friday’s idea about matching students with people who want research. I am going to spend some time over the weekend going through the comments in more detail and thinking about whether we can take this to a next stage. 

 This week’s idea is not a new one to regular readers but I am hoping now to do something about it.

 Here is the argument in six steps:

1. As a number of social theorists have explained, we have moved from class based politics (with its aspects of tradition, hierarchy and deference) to a politics based on reflexive individuals making political choices based on their own chosen values and aspirations. As these theorists (Habermas and Giddens, for example) have argued this means we need a new, more discursive and participatory, form of politics.

2. But this politics hasn’t emerged. Participation in formal decision making is moderate at best and distrust of politics high. Politicians find it difficult to have open and honest discussions with citizens about the country’s long term needs. Outside politics, there are also polarised and seemingly intractable public debates about science and culture.

3. Many reasons are offered for this but one which is not often discussed is the very structure of political discourse. Stripped to its core, a typical political assertion is: ‘I believe in fairness and the future but the other guy believes in unfairness and the past’. In other words it comprises a positive statement which almost anyone would say they supported while attributing beliefs to the opponent with which any reasonable person would disagree. The problem, of course, is that ‘the other guy’ is likely to make exactly the same assertion in return.

4. Most people are busy and have many calls on their attention. They are interested in issues and would like to be able to make an informed judgement.  But when they engage they are faced again and again with a debate in which both sides seem to be saying the same thing, or which seems to be characterised, not by people clarifying their own beliefs, but making claims about what their opponents think. In the face of this people resort to making judgements on the basis of factors out with the debate such as the likability of the protagonists, or they simply turn away feeling a mixture of antagonism and inadequacy.              

5. One way of engaging people and enabling them to make a judgement based on the substantive issues is to restructure the debate around a core principle: each side commits to trying to find out what it is they agree that they disagree about.

6. This could have two benefits. First, it could make the debate less adversarial. This is because, generally, the things you believe in are less threatening to me than the things that you allege I believe. Second, it allows the spectator to understand what might be the key criteria on which to base their judgement. Understanding what actually divides the argument might even lead people to change their minds.

I am returning to this idea partly because I can’t get it out of my head; the structure of political discourse is proving to be something of an obsession for me, but also because recently I have witnessed a very good example of a non debate involving highly intelligent people.

Last week the RSA partnered with the New Humanist for a debate about the new atheism. Some very impressive thinkers – Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Ree and Roger Scruton railed against the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. A few months earlier at a New Humanist fund raiser I had heard Dawkins laying into religion. The problem is that thoughtful people of faith reject the characterisation of belief offered by Dawkins while thoughtful scientists like Dawkins refute the allegation of crude scientism laid at his door. Instead of the defenders of religion delving into the nature and value of faith and the champions of scientific rationalist exploring the boundaries of scientific knowledge (each fascinating subjects) both sides caricatured each other. It’s all very entertaining but not nearly so illuminating.

The final reason I am coming back to this is that now I have some potential partners to help me finance and organise some debates structured in this way; perhaps one on culture, one on science and one on a political topic. The idea is that a researcher delves into the issue in question and identifies a person on both sides who is willing to participate in the process (which means committing to trying to find the agreed differences at the heart of the debate). At the end of the process we hold a debate in which (after a quick show of hands to see the audience’s starting point opinion) the participants lay out their agreed differences. After this a panel responds before we open up the debate to the audience, returning at the end to see if the audiences view has changed. Of course the whole thing will be filmed, and maybe broadcast.

So, what do you think?  Is it interesting, would it work, how could it best designed, do you want to get involved?

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