Proposal for a #Rethink on how we debate ideas
I drafted this piece in June 2020 for the Rethink series of ‘post-Covid’ opinion pieces which was initially broadcast in the first half of 2020 on BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 5 Live, and the BBC World Service.
I have Tweeted about quite a few of the #RETHINK broadcasts, many of which have been excellent.
The BBC issued a call for public submissions for the series, hosted by Chris Mason, who hosts Any Questions on BBC Radio 4, and I responded accordingly. Though I was lined up to contribute to the broadcast, they ran out of time.
We have found that during the pandemic that the arguments around it weren’t well-established, and there was little data to inform the debate. Yet it was an issue that profoundly affected all of us, and understanding it was critical for most.
I feel our culture of debate today is particularly unhealthy and unproductive — even counter-productive and a bulwark hindering social progress. For reasons I have written about — in the context of the 201 Charlie Hebdo murders — people take their views very personally and I noted there that today:
beliefs are often so closely held that any questioning of them tends to create an almost existential crisis in the person being questioned’. I noted that it used to be the case that in the post-War era ‘political ideas were contested in an open, informed and good natured — if fiery — manner
Today, the nature of debate seems very different. People dismiss an idea on the basis it is from someone they don’t like (Jacob Rees-Mogg, Diane Abbot); from a kind of person they don’t like (white male, lesbian woman); or from a party or political point-of-view to which they are hostile (Labour, right-wing). They may frame it as unacceptable (neo-Nazi, Marxist) or imply guilt by association. On occasion, they will cite an idea of the proposer they consider discredited in an attempt to discredit their current idea. Another tactic is the ad hominem attack, the least worst of which is to accuse the proposer of hypocrisy. Or they caricature or wilfully misunderstand the idea or turn it into a straw man and then knock it down.
Sometimes they will argue without taking into account previous debates and how the argument has moved on and become more nuanced. Other times they counter-argue in a clearly illogical or deliberately vexatious manner. They will do anything but engage with the idea in question!
These approaches are in bad faith and dishonest. An idea should be engaged with in its own terms and we should in good faith try to understand it, assess the evidence on which it rests, critique its logic, and put it in the context of broader debates. We should try to be open-minded, come to it fresh, and be prepared to be convinced by the argument. And we should be able to hold two opposed ideas in our minds at the same time (as F. Scott Fitzgerald argued), and be able to assess the merits and demerits of any argument. [source]
As John Stuart Mill argued in his 1859 On Liberty :
Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument
But this can only happen if argument is conducted in this manner.
Of course, not every idea is worth engaging with. Some are not original, others are evidently crass, or not well thought-through. And some who propose ideas are deliberately vexatious. But we should give an idea of the benefit of the doubt and dismiss it only with great caution.
If we aren’t able to debate in good faith, discourse in civil society will stagnate and positions will become entrenched, bearing less and less relationship to reality, and losing the power to lead meaningful change. Citizens know when politicians and others are debating in bad faith, and while they may not always be able to explain why, this will tend to turn them off politics, undermine any belief they have that their views will be taken seriously and, ultimately, drive them from civil society.
Debating in bad faith is also deleterious to the debater. It justifies lazy thinking, avoiding research, and not engaging with the evolution of ideas. It stunts rather than stretching the mind. Debating in good faith provides a role model for the demos, encourages them (us) to ‘raise their game’ and to strive to be taken seriously as citizens and political actors. And it’s been the basis for all social progress in the modern era.
- Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Other Essays (p. 16). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition. (Penguin Classics, 1859)