By coincidence I found myself having two conversations yesterday about constraints on open debate. The first was with a friend who works on research and strategy in a children's charity. The second was as part of our fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference on the idea of social sentencing.
My friend was discussing how to raise difficult issues in the debate about child protection. With the tragedy of April Jones, the deepening scandal of Jimmy Savile and the media circus over runaway/abducted schoolgirl Megan Stammers, there seems to be an urgent need for thoughtful debate about the nature of the dangers adults pose to children. Yet, I wonder whether we will move beyond the tendency to think of the main danger being posed by strangers (when the majority of abuse takes place in families), of offenders coming from a separate race of sub-human monsters (ignoring, for example, the correlation between those who offend and those who have been victims) and of offending being a function of individual evil (when - as the Savile case shows - social context and norms are also very important).
The usual analysis is that the public at large is not capable of understanding or discussing complexity, preferring simple Manichean certainties. I disagree. As I argued last week, individual and public opinion is more protean, being open at any time to adopting and advocating different positions on the same issue. Instead, I think the problem lies in the structure of public discourse and the incentives which exist for pressure groups, opinion formers - particularly those in the mainstream media - and politicians to seek short term publicity or approval by exploiting the discomfort that can be caused by unconventional arguments and instead offering people the safe harbour of outrage.
In the criminal justice seminar, a number of Conservative candidates in the forthcoming elections for Police and Crime Commissioners expressed scepticism about supporting strategies like restorative justice or social sentencing, arguing that they sounded both too liberal and too complex. Furthermore, despite being supportive of our ideas for integrating offenders into the wider community, the impressive minister at the event defended the symbolism of the announcement apparently just made by Theresa May that all community sentences must contain an explicitly punitive element (we await the announcement that all punitive sentences must contain an explicitly rehabilitative element).
As is typical of all conversations about the difficulty of in any way diverging from a purely punitive discourse, the words 'Daily Mail' were used repeatedly (including I assume by several people who are among its loyal readers!). Far be it for me to defend the Mail, but I wonder whether it is an easier target to blame than 'unmediated public opinion' which is what people really fear.
Lots of ink has been spilled on why simple - usually illiberal - arguments are easier to articulate and more immediately attractive to most people than more subtle - usually more liberal - positions (Drew Westen's 'Political Brain is the classic but Jonathan Haidt's 'The Righteous Mind' is also good on our moral 'taste receptors').
Yesterday simply confirmed to me how important it is that we find new and better ways of opening up more balanced and nuanced public debate. Indeed, as economic slump and austerity makes it more likely that we seek people to blame for our many ills, it becomes even more necessary to find ways of of airing alternative views.
It also reminded me that the RSA's role as a platform for important and challenging ideas (particularly through our lectures) is as important to our charitable mission of enhancing human capability as anything else we do.