Towards More Informed Public Debate

Our society seems increasingly permeated by polarising issues. Issues such as climate change (and subsequently the carbon tax), the issue of refugees arriving by boats, the government intervention into remote indigenous communities, the threat of terrorism (particularly by Muslim Jihadists) and so on seem to rapidly polarize our society making meaningful debate quite problematic. It seems once we take a position we find it inordinately difficult to hear the point of view of those whose thinking differs from our own.

The movement towards the development of a shared understanding is thwarted by the immature responses of the protagonists. They seem not to want to defend their positions by rational argument but by emotional name-calling aimed at denigrating their opponents. Depending where they sit on the political spectrum the unbelievers are reactionaries, troglodytes, luddites and rednecks or communists, idealists, bleeding hearts or impractical academics. (I am sure you will readily be able to add to the epithets!)

(Whilst this is more prevalent now, there were certainly many older precedents. I think I can remember Gough Whitlam calling the then Prime Minister William McMahon a reactionary, Neanderthal troglodyte, which, while it seemed amusing at the time and sent the press gallery scurrying off to find their dictionaries, didn’t really add to the debate!)

This is all rather unedifying and certainly doesn’t enhance our basic understanding of the issues. It is almost as though our positions on these controversial issues are a matter of faith and not of belief.

As a result of the polarisation it seems to be difficult to negotiate the middle ground.

Suppose say, I concede that much of the malaise suffered by our indigenous community has been caused by abysmal policies and inappropriate administration by all levels of government. Yet if I contend that there will be no improvement in the welfare of our indigenous communities until they are prepared to accept some responsibility for their own social and economic development, I will probably be labeled racist. (No matter that this is what Noel Pearson, the most enlightened commentator on indigenous affairs, has been saying. Noel garners a lot of his credibility for what he says because he is indigenous. If I were to propose his solutions to the problem, I would most likely be called racist because I am not indigenous.)

And if I were to postulate that multiculturalism is very beneficial to Australia but our laws, our democratic ideals, and our tolerance of race and gender differences should be shared by all, including the newcomers to our country, I will more than likely be labeled xenophobic.

Further, if I were to take the reasonable position that global warming as a result of the proliferation of greenhouse gases seems plausible, but I am unsure that this is a result of anthropogenic activity I will probably called a “climate change denier”.

So my plea to the participant in the debate(s) is don’t label me – convince me!!

Why then has polarisation led to this unhealthy position? I would like to discuss two contributory factors.

Many of the things we believe in we have come to believe not because we are convinced by the facts but because the belief has been propagated by someone (or someones) we admire and would like to be identified with. As I have proposed in previous blogs, many of our behaviours are fashioned by an unconscious desire to belong to some group or other.

For many of us our sense of self is bolstered by this identification. My sense of security is heightened when I know I am not alone – I have others around me with similar beliefs. Consequently if our sense of who we are is tied up in these (generally arbitrary) belief systems, we can’t afford to have them challenged.

Now I have said above that these belief systems are generally arbitrary because we hold them as a result of the accidents of our personal history. Much of what we have come to believe is a result of our socialisation at particularly formative periods of our lives.

Consequently, as a result of this process, any assault on my beliefs is interpreted as an assault of my self. Similarly if I have unconsciously acquired such a belief through the socialisation process, I haven’t necessarily been intellectually convinced and therefore will find my belief difficult to rationalise. The result is then not a rational debate but an emotive exchange which is principally designed to defend my sense of self.

In my coaching work I often instruct my clients in the principals of active listening. This is a very positive technique insofar as the participants are encouraged to listen to and encourage the communication from the other person. Even more importantly at discrete points in the discourse the listener is encouraged to summarise what the other has said. This has two principal benefits. Firstly it ensures the listener has understood what they have been told. But more importantly it confirms they have been listened to with appropriate attention. This is something I would love to see more evidence of in public debate (naïve idealist that I am).

In their zeal to attack their opponents many of the debates I have heard on these polarising issues would lend me to believe that the protagonists have never heard each other. As a result there has been little movement towards shared understanding. For those whose beliefs have been acquired by such means as mentioned above they can’t afford to have them questioned and as a result have no disposition to hear the opposing point of view. And it is of course intellectually lazy at best, and at worst a reflection of our ignorance when we resort to such tactics.

It would help the whole process of developing understanding if we could at least recognise that reasonable people can hold views contrary to our own. We should also recognise that many reasonable people have not been convinced one way or the other. And I can say that they are even less likely to be convinced if they are denigrated for not holding views at the extreme ends of the spectrum.

I have many reasonable, intelligent friends that don’t share my point of view on many issues. It is edifying to hear them argue their point of view. Sometimes I am required by their logic to change my mind. That is no great slight. Often they are better informed than I am or sometimes have come to their viewpoint through logical processes I haven’t considered. We come out of such exchanges better informed and with no assault on our sense of self.

So let me make a plea, in the hope of pursuit of better understanding, for a little more argument and a little less name-calling in these important debates.

11 Replies to “Towards More Informed Public Debate”

  1. Thank you for saying what has been needed for such a long time. The current combative climate in politics makes any productive outcome unlikely.
    I am often in those polarised situations as a Councillor in Local Government, and am often disappointed by the avoidance of disagreement for the sake of being polite.
    You are absolutely correct about active listening, and the sanitisation of discussion for political correctness means there is very little substance available to be listend to.
    I also concede I am far from perfect and your article has given me a nudge back to reality.

  2. Thanks for this post, Ted,

    I also have been lamenting a lack of any real discussion about a range of complex issues – where (it appears to me) an optimal solution is not easily apparent, nor (perhaps) easy to implement. You list some of these.

    In terms of the propensity to name-call, I’m beginning to wonder if this is just not a logical extension of the way in which we all, as humans, are relying increasingly on models to simplify a reality that seems increasingly complex.

    Whilst models do have some value, I believe it’s important to understand the context for which the model was created, and hence its limitations. Without this, they do seem to be misappropriated without the user being aware.

    In this sense, I see models are not just the domain of politics and religion, but are very widespread.

    For instance (closer to home) I have experienced the downside of people taking a Myers-Briggs personality type as gospel and inverting what I see as the true meaning – in which case the message changes from:

    “Your answers fit an XXXX profile, in which case you might find some of the following description resonates with you” to:

    “You’re an XXXX therefore you must do ___ and must not be able to do ____”

    In a similar way a badge that some wear with honour (for their own reasons) can be used as pejorative by someone else (for entirely different reasons). In these cases, a lazy use of common language can increase confusion, rather than the reverse.

    In terms of the political sphere, I wonder about the chicken-and-egg – i.e. are politicians resorting the basest denominators because we’re making them do this (by resisting real debate) or are politicians doing it to stifle the debate?


  3. As usual Ted – very thoughtful and insightful!

    Your comments take me back to the first time you introduced me to active listening and how useful that lesson has been to me ever since.

    Our real challenge is to live the ideal of seeking to understand before making ourselves understood; to find and explore our common ground, not just our differences; and to respect others (and their opinions) as we wish them to respect us (and our opinions).


  4. Thanks Ted,

    This article reminded me a several occasions while still in the energy business where I was roundly criticised in public forums for suggesting that demand side management had a role in managing supply. On one occasion I was actually booed. “you’ll not take my beer fridge” being a common cry!

    I think you’re covered it but I would agree strongly with:
    A failure to listen actively
    Unwillingness or inability to think
    I’ve selected a tribe

    In Politics it goes even further with win at all costs. I find it difficult to listen to our politicians at the moment.


  5. Thank you Paul, Joe, Bruno and Father Robin. I enjoyed your comments.

    You are right Paul that it is intellectual laziness that has us trying to pigeonhole people. It is interesting that some of the religious traditions point out that naming (in a sense of cataloguing) anybody actually demeans them.

    I could really empathise with your example Bruno. Your little summary of what is important was insightful

    As for you, Father Robin – was an oxymoron some beast you encountered on the Serengetti?

    And Joe how pleasing it is to have you confirm the benefits of active listening. (It is one of the essential skills and I often tutor executives in the practice.)

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