24 Dec

Death to the Debate: Lessons from the Year of Rage (2016)

The first of a two-part series reflecting on 2016

 ‘I believe in the complexity of the human story and that there’s no way you can tell that story in one way and say, This is it. Always there will be someone who can tell it differently depending on where they are standing; the same person telling the story will tell it differently…So you keep moving, and this is the way I think the world’s stories should be told—from many different perspectives.’ – Chinua Achebe

2016 was the year of rage and no other day epitomised it than 16 June 2016. A British MP, Jo Cox, was shot and stabbed multiple times by a member of her constituency, Thomas Alexander Mair. Mair had killed Cox to silence her, literally and metaphorically because Cox’s political views were in direct contrast to his white supremacist views. When Cox was murdered, she was on her way to attend a constituency surgery, a public session organised a political office-holder where a constituent can have individual discussions relating to a local or national issue. The fact that Mair chose to murder Cox rather than take up the opportunity to converse with Cox during the surgery, is a poignant reminder of the consequences of neglecting (intentionally or unintentionally) the ethics of public discussion. This is not to remove accountability from Mair’s actions but to contextualise this act in a year that has seen some of the most divisive and hateful political rhetoric legitimised under the name of ‘debate.’

The ‘debate’ as the environment for public discussion is no longer suitable for the complex reality of this world. Debate focuses on the micro; the busyness of tying up logical and factual narratives. It is easy to create an argument for a particular stance on an issue but to integrate different and at times, contradictory perspectives is incredibly difficult. Nuance, I believe, adopts a macro-perspective because it assumes that the issue in focus is complex and consequently requires varying perspectives if one is to gain greater awareness of it. Nuance is the environment for truly progressive public dialogue because it enables a mindset shift from combative (debate) to contemplative.  So where can we go to find this environment?

Outside.

No, really. Go Outside.  In  his article, Alex Pentland explains how the only way to ‘rescue democracy’ from the current combative momentum, is to go outside. He shares,

‘What would happen if we mixed primarily through that quaint and old-fashioned technique, namely moving about in our physical environment, encountering opinions and perspectives that we did not pre-select? Could we counter the devil’s brew of single-community media combined with physical segregation? My research at MIT strongly suggests that the answer is yes. In businesses, on the street, and in peer groups, ideas are shaped more by face-to-face interaction than by digital media.’

There are two elements of going ‘outside.’ The first is the literal sense; being engaged and attentive to the physical environment you find yourself in and the interactions you have with other people. Earlier this year, I reached a point where I was very weary of living in London. I found it chaotic, monotonous and uninspiring. I later realised these were more reflections of my internal self than my external environment.

I recently started running as a serious hobby and I listen to podcasts to help be more present when I run. One of my favourite podcasts to run to is Monocle’s ‘The Urbanist’ podcast because it frames my mind to appreciate (intellectually and emotionally) all the social and political factors that go into designing a city. Whether I run outside in London or Beirut or Medjugorje, I physically move in to the familiar, while looking for interactions to challenge my observations of the world.

The second aspect of going outside, is the political sense, as Pentland says, ‘encountering opinions and perspectives that we did not pre-select.’ I will contradict Pentland’s statement here and suggest that you intentionally seek opinions and perspectives that contradict yours. Instead of shutting down an opinion that does not reify your current belief, stay open and ask a few questions; stay longer than you would want to even if it feels uncomfortable. Be in that encounter enough to grapple with what it teaches you about another’s perspective and more importantly, what it can teach you about the reality of the world you both inhibit.

I have come across three examples that adopt nuance as a technique to advance public dialogue. The first example is in public health by an American physician, Dr. Lee Daugherty Biddison. Biddison organised a series of public forums to inform policy design on contentious public health issues such as who to prioritise healthcare provision for when resources are scarce. Bringing together citizens from different socio-economic backgrounds to discuss an issue like that might seem alarming, if one assumes the context in which to discuss such an issue is a debate. However, framing the discussion in nuance allows discussants to engage with their biases and beliefs rather than the expectation of upholding these biases and beliefs at all costs, as one would do in a debate.

The second example is from architecture. Diébédo Francis Kéré is an architect born and raised in Burkina Faso. His gift of combining cutting-edge design, ‘poor people’s’ materials and community-led development practices will leave you in awe. Kéré uses his practice to shape a communal and collaborative approach to building and experiencing physical space. His current project is to design and build, together with the citizens of Burkina Faso, a parliament building after the previous building was burned down in 2014.

Below is a brief interview of Kéré describing his work:

A third example is Wikipedia. There is really no way Wikipedia could work if their approach to documenting knowledge was to defend one’s view point on a topic. Wikipedia’s approach is through co-creating knowledge with the awareness of the complex perspectives on reality and the belief that public dialogue is the only way to reach the most realistic representation of that complexity. The co-founder, Jimmy Wales, describes Wikipedia as a ‘dialogue and discussion’ and explains how nuance enables the Wikipedia community to function,

‘So, one of the things that I think is interesting about Wikipedia is that I believe that truth is the recognition of the facts of reality. That it’s an objective theory of truth and that it’s really hard to get to. To do a good job of thinking, and a good job of sorting through fallacies, and sifting the evidence, and coming to truth is very hard.

But it is something that human beings can do, albeit imperfectly. And what’s interesting is that my view of truth actually doesn’t matter. A person who edits Wikipedia who thinks truth is highly a social construct or something, we can still edit together, as long as they agree that the social contract has to do with making noises about reliable sources and evidence. So then we’re OK.

And then the other thing that I think is really interesting about this is that how often it is possible for people who disagree fundamentally on some important issue, if they’re kind and thoughtful and they take a deep breath, can work together productively to describe that issue. So I always invite people to imagine a very kind and thoughtful Catholic priest and a very kind and thoughtful Planned Parenthood activist. And they’re working together on an entry about abortion, about which clearly they’re never going to agree.’

The crisis of public dialogue is fundamentally a crisis of how we define the individual’s expression of thought in society and for society. 2017 will be the year to re-ignite a focus on the ethics of public discussion, if we still believe in the ‘individual’, in ‘community’ and in ‘progress.’

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