The death of civilised debate

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

Today nearly all real public discussion has become impossible. Which is why nearly all public thinking has become impossible. Which is why the thinking has gone bad on nearly every major issue now facing us.

It isn’t just politics that is finding it hard to operate. It is also the media and every other piece of sense-making apparatus we used to possess. The negatives accrued to any individual or institution for thinking or saying anything remotely controversial now means that they don’t bother any more. We’ve lost the art of discussion and with it the ability to find honest solutions.

There are a number of causes. Take the collapse of the ideas of private and public language brought about by technology. Throughout all of human history up until today the idea that you might say one thing in private and another in public was stored wisdom. It could lead to double-speak, for sure. Hypocrisy, certainly. But it was also recognised to have a utility: people — including politicians — needed to try out thoughts and ideas. No longer.

Today every politician and private individual has to live their lives (and voice any ideas) with the constant threat that what they are saying might be for the few people around them or (thanks to Twitter and other social media) for every other human being on the planet. Anyone doubting the extreme implications of this should consider the case of the 18-year-old schoolgirl from Utah who last year posted a photograph of herself in her prom dress online. By the end of the evening the image had circulated the world and (because the red dress was Chinese-inspired) she was being globally berated for ‘casual racism’. All she wanted was a few social media ‘likes’. What she got was a hurricane.

Young people growing up in this world are unfairly derided as ‘snowflakes’. But why wouldn’t they grow up to become ultra-cautious? Nearly all the adults are. On issue after issue the adults learned from the public ruin of figures such as Professor Tim Hunt (for the crime of making a mild joke at a conference in South Korea) and simply did a cost benefit analysis. If it has become impossible for men to talk about women then why try doing it? Why not just agree to whatever it is insisted that we have agreed upon since yesterday? If there are only negatives from raising an eyebrow at the latest LGBTQI claim, why not just keep those eyebrows absolutely still? If the cost of trying out ideas is this exponentially high, why risk it? And if the cost of maintaining a truth is greater than the ease of maintaining a lie, don’t be so sure that most people won’t be happy to help sustain a lie.

As a result, our society has become perfectly content sustaining a set of lies unchallenged. For instance, we pretend to know about things we don’t know about (the whole issue of ‘trans’) while simultaneously pretending that we don’t know about things we all knew till yesterday (such as relations between the sexes). Volunteer scolds lie around every corner to correct anyone who even raises a hand. Somebody tells a two-decade old story of someone touching someone’s knee. Soon someone else will emerge to say that this is tantamount to sexual assault or rape. Raise an objection and you will be an ‘apologist for sexual assault’. So best to keep your head down and allow the hurricane to blow over your head, taking out whom it will.

Politics — as Chancellor Angela Merkel once said — is hard. Every decision allows some people to gain more and other people to lose something. Yet the person who loses cannot now be ignored. They can be brought right before you at any moment. This has plenty of advantages for campaigners (including for good causes). But it means that on issue after issue we have to arrive at decisions that offend nobody and harm no one. That is, views which are utterly, wholly banal, or postpone all negatives for another day. The traps are set against almost all words and actions on multiple levels.

For example, public and private figures used to try to order their thoughts and utterances so that their words could not be honestly misinterpreted by an honest critic. As Sam Leith demonstrates in his feature, today they must attempt another task. They must speak and write in such a way that no dishonest critic can dishonestly misrepresent them. Which cannot be done. Or cannot be done without driving yourself mad.

And so on issue after issue our society has decided to engage in a tactic of avoidance. For some people the avoidance extends to avoiding acting on a public vote. But elsewhere it consists of simply avoiding any tricky issue. At present the issues we wish to avoid include everything to do with gender or sex, everything to do with sexual orientation and everything to do with race and identity. And the list of modern heresies keeps being added to.

All produce the feeling that there is not much point in arguing any more. Not because the public argument is unswayed by reason or expertise. Though it is. Nor that it cannot be swayed by clear speech. Though it cannot. The supplementary problem is that everything has become about the speaker, not the speech. Making truth a matter of secondary importance, if not irrelevance.

Take the case of Greta Thunberg. One may agree with her diagnosis of the science on climate change or not. One may regard her UN critique of economic growth last month as informed or otherwise. But nobody in any position of power will even argue with her ideas. Because Greta is — among much else — the perfect creation of the ideas age we live in. She has been chosen and elevated precisely because she is impossible to oppose. Or impossible to oppose without being cast out as a monster.

The invitation goes like this. ‘Here is our 16-year-old autistic girl. Listen to her as she demands that you destroy the best system of economic growth.’ Only just behind that is the real challenge. ‘Go on. Oppose her. I dare you. Attack the 16-year-old autistic Swede.’ It is tempting to try to enter into an arms race with the proponents of this very modern form of debate-suppression — this muffling by victimhood. Over recent months, as Greta has increasingly come to resemble some visitation from the Middle Ages, I have often wondered about putting out an advert for a disabled Danish 14-year-old who loves fossil fuels. In a Scandi child-off with Greta would such a candidate win? I suspect not, though it remains unclear what the rules are.

Perhaps it is because we have forbidden ourselves from discussing almost anything of importance that our public figures have chosen to spend their time competing in some performative-rage awards. There is a reason why Jess Phillips and some of her Labour colleagues have been rivalling each other to give the most face-contorting, spittle-flecked denunciation of anyone on the opposition benches. It is the same reason that previously reasonable figures such as David Lammy have chosen to become race-baiters on social media.

There has always been a performative element to politics. But in an era in which almost every important subject is off the table, and parliamentarians cannot even deliver the one thing the public has asked of them, performative rage provides some pretence of meaning for parliamentarians and their small claques of online devotees. It is why MPs now get their staffers to film them ‘confronting’ political opponents in private. Why do they not spend their time trying to solve even one major question? Because they have helped to cordon off any and all such issues. So we must have embedded rage on faked-up issues.

Ordinarily, the answer would lie in whatever institutions were still respected to attempt to bring people together in some common cause. Last week the bishops of the Church of England called for calm and respectful language from parliamentarians in the Brexit debate. An appeal that would carry more weight if the Bishop of Leeds — to pick one example — had not in January used his pulpit to call Boris Johnson an ‘amoral liar’.

And this is the final problem of debate in the internet age. Information technology has rendered every person and institution — including parliament, the BBC and the Church — wholly transparent. We, the general public, can see through everything, including ourselves, making us able to choose which paths of understanding and opinion we like without needing them ever to intersect with those of our neighbours or fellow countrymen.

There are ways through. They include us trying to interpret the words of our opponents, and not only our allies, in a spirit of generosity. To realise that ideas are difficult and that mistakes are a votive offering demanded by answers. To treat the past as well as the present in a spirit of toleration and understanding. But most of all we must once again permit ourselves the messy luxury of heresy, including heretical thinking.

For there are really only two options in a society as diverse, noisy and transparent as ours has become. We can either try to limit the noise by censoring, policing and muffling all those questions, terms and ideas that worry us. Or we can accept that the world we have created is cacophonous, and that the only consolation we might have is to train the next generation and ourselves to be able to pick out those words and ideas that we recognise to be true.

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