Let's have a lively debate... - RSA

Let's have a lively debate...


I know it is a trite observation, but it is poignant to see Libyans, Syrians and other brave Arab citizens laying down their lives for greater democracy at just the time when the mature democracies of the United States and Europe seem almost incapable of resolving failings of fiscal management, financial regulation and international cooperation which have left us in the economic doldrums and still teetering on the edge of something much worse. Indeed the prospects of recovery in the Western economies substantially depend on the continued success of the authoritarian regime in China.

Apparently, the international community is seeking to ensure that the Libyan National Transitional Council avoids the  mistakes in shaping a new democratic state that have led to the protracted conflict and deeply flawed governance of Iraq and Afghanistan. I imagine that the advice to the Council will focus on issues of reconciliation, security and the rule of law, representation, as well as governance capacity and process. In an emergency these may be the right priorities, but I hope too that there will be space to talk about styles of leadership and the structure of public discourse.

Here the key goals should be:  pluralism and mutual respect, open and informed debate, and a definition of the political sphere which incorporates formal and informal civil society. Advisors to the new Libyan leadership should not just reflect on what has gone wrong in new democracies but also on what is going wrong in the mature ones.

Imagine if the visceral adversarialism, ideological dogmatism and detachment from reality which categorised the recent debate over raising the US debt ceiling was transferred to the volatile setting of Libya. Or imagine if the new free media in Libya was to adopt the approach to editorial balance and responsibility applied by Fox News. 

This is one reason why I think fostering intelligent, balanced, dare I say it 'polite', debate is an important public service. Being able to participate in and appreciate such debate is a crucial but massively under-rated civic capacity. 

Without, I hope, sounding too pious this is also my main motivation (apart, that is, from vanity and Oedipal competition) for spending quite a bit of time working on media projects over the summer. Tonight, for example, I am chairing a debate about hate crime which is being hosted by Radio 4. The programme (broadcast tomorrow night at 8) is an experiment in having debates to take up issues highlighted in radio drama and will follow a fine radio play by Simon Armitage (which went out at 14.15 today) about the murder of Sophie Lancaster, killed by youths who objected to her being a 'goth'. 

It's risky setting out my aims so soon before everyone gets to found out whether they are met, but my hope is that we can cover the issues, connect with people's experiences and strong passions but also try to find out what people agree about and also - crucially - what they agree they disagree about. 

Respectfully agreeing what you disagree about - it may sound like a dry, academic kind of aspiration but I think it is central to achieving the kind of enlightened democracy the world needs right now. If it's the kind of attribute we are encouraging in Libya, let's hope we get judged more by what we say than what we do! 

Ps while I'm on my broadcasting career, I sadly haven't found anyone who heard my programme about the amazing and tragic scientist and good samaritan George Price. If you fancy a listen, it's only short and quite poignant - you can hear it here. Thanks

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