Agree to differ, again

October 1, 2010 by
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA 

Thank you to everyone who responded to last Friday’s idea about matching students with people who want research. I am going to spend some time over the weekend going through the comments in more detail and thinking about whether we can take this to a next stage. 

 This week’s idea is not a new one to regular readers but I am hoping now to do something about it.

 Here is the argument in six steps:

1. As a number of social theorists have explained, we have moved from class based politics (with its aspects of tradition, hierarchy and deference) to a politics based on reflexive individuals making political choices based on their own chosen values and aspirations. As these theorists (Habermas and Giddens, for example) have argued this means we need a new, more discursive and participatory, form of politics.

2. But this politics hasn’t emerged. Participation in formal decision making is moderate at best and distrust of politics high. Politicians find it difficult to have open and honest discussions with citizens about the country’s long term needs. Outside politics, there are also polarised and seemingly intractable public debates about science and culture.

3. Many reasons are offered for this but one which is not often discussed is the very structure of political discourse. Stripped to its core, a typical political assertion is: ‘I believe in fairness and the future but the other guy believes in unfairness and the past’. In other words it comprises a positive statement which almost anyone would say they supported while attributing beliefs to the opponent with which any reasonable person would disagree. The problem, of course, is that ‘the other guy’ is likely to make exactly the same assertion in return.

4. Most people are busy and have many calls on their attention. They are interested in issues and would like to be able to make an informed judgement.  But when they engage they are faced again and again with a debate in which both sides seem to be saying the same thing, or which seems to be characterised, not by people clarifying their own beliefs, but making claims about what their opponents think. In the face of this people resort to making judgements on the basis of factors out with the debate such as the likability of the protagonists, or they simply turn away feeling a mixture of antagonism and inadequacy.              

5. One way of engaging people and enabling them to make a judgement based on the substantive issues is to restructure the debate around a core principle: each side commits to trying to find out what it is they agree that they disagree about.

6. This could have two benefits. First, it could make the debate less adversarial. This is because, generally, the things you believe in are less threatening to me than the things that you allege I believe. Second, it allows the spectator to understand what might be the key criteria on which to base their judgement. Understanding what actually divides the argument might even lead people to change their minds.

I am returning to this idea partly because I can’t get it out of my head; the structure of political discourse is proving to be something of an obsession for me, but also because recently I have witnessed a very good example of a non debate involving highly intelligent people.

Last week the RSA partnered with the New Humanist for a debate about the new atheism. Some very impressive thinkers – Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Ree and Roger Scruton railed against the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. A few months earlier at a New Humanist fund raiser I had heard Dawkins laying into religion. The problem is that thoughtful people of faith reject the characterisation of belief offered by Dawkins while thoughtful scientists like Dawkins refute the allegation of crude scientism laid at his door. Instead of the defenders of religion delving into the nature and value of faith and the champions of scientific rationalist exploring the boundaries of scientific knowledge (each fascinating subjects) both sides caricatured each other. It’s all very entertaining but not nearly so illuminating.

The final reason I am coming back to this is that now I have some potential partners to help me finance and organise some debates structured in this way; perhaps one on culture, one on science and one on a political topic. The idea is that a researcher delves into the issue in question and identifies a person on both sides who is willing to participate in the process (which means committing to trying to find the agreed differences at the heart of the debate). At the end of the process we hold a debate in which (after a quick show of hands to see the audience’s starting point opinion) the participants lay out their agreed differences. After this a panel responds before we open up the debate to the audience, returning at the end to see if the audiences view has changed. Of course the whole thing will be filmed, and maybe broadcast.

So, what do you think?  Is it interesting, would it work, how could it best designed, do you want to get involved?



  • Lucy Sweetman

    Yes, great idea. Yes, it would work. Yes, I’d love to help. I share your frustration with the quality of public discourse.


    A great idea and I would be keen to help.

    This is in effect an attempt to work towards what Habermas thinks we need – the ‘ideal speech situation’ in which citizens can articulate viewpoints in an unconstrained way that leads towards clarity and (as far as possible) consensus.

    Listening to the RSA ‘God debate’ was instructive – one of the least acerbic and confrontational of its kind in recent years, and one that opened up common ground as well as sharp disagreements. Much depends on the generosity and humility of spirit of participants, and those taking part were all exemplary in their approach to uncertainties and their antagonists.

  • catherine

    This potential partner thinks it’d a great idea!

  • Nicolas Holzapfel

    Lots of interesting insights and, I think, all true. I’m not sure how the proposed solution could be made to affect the wider political debate though. Most people continuously indulge in straw men arguments, misrepresenting the claims of the other side, because they know it’s an effective way to win an argument. Politicians are particularly inclined to use such devices, because the stakes are so high. If they don’t win arguments, everything they’ve staked their life on will fall away. Democracy exacerbates this tendency: debates in the House of Lords are far more enlightening than those in the House of Commons, because the former are focused on understanding the issues, while the latter are focused on undermining the opposing side.

    Another problem with engaging more citizens in debate and decision-making is the fact that we have no way of facilitating coherent debate between millions of participants. I’m optimistic this can be partially solved (see but it would require a big shift in the way we have debates.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Religion should not be mixed with science.
    It is a category mistake to try to involve God in a scientific theory. As St Aquinas has said, God is outside time and space.
    And as Paul Davies has stated, it is also wrong to say that God “created” the universe as this implies the existence of time before the Big Bang.

  • Kiron Ward

    I’ve been following this idea, and I’m glad it’s stayed in your head: it’s certainly been lodged in mine (and takes on a renewed relevance every time I watch Newsnight, or The Review Show, etc.). I think a well-publicised and -explained attempt to change the nature of public debate could only have positive effects: even if the idea you’ve articulated doesn’t work out, it ought to generate some discussion around different forms of public discourse.

    I don’t know what I could do, but I would absolutely love to help.

  • Patricia

    I’m glad to share your healthy obsession with the very sick state of the current political discourse. Any chance that the initiative could be officially launched on 30th October to coincide with Jon Stewart’s ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’? ( It seems to me that looking at the critical debate around Habermas’ account of the public sphere and the theory of deliberative democracy could be helpful in structuring the framework of the actual debate.

  • Ian Hadden

    I guess people have been saying we need this ever since Socrates, but the time might just be right for some progress. Michael Sandel’s book Justice is getting a lot of (deserved) hype and covers this area very well – he analyses controversial topics rigourously to expose the core of the differences between people’s positions. Have a look at his website for a taster video: Good luck and happy to contribute.

  • Ian Hadden

    Er just noticed that my last post is redundant as you are all over the Michael Sandel connection. Moderators please feel free to delete. Thanks.

  • carl allen

    An alternative audience use for the resources you mentioned is to invite young (still at school) persons interested in economics and politics and philosophy to attend the debates.

    It would be helpful if they were first sent on-line material on how a debate is conducted and perhaps a online session followed at another date by a live debate.

  • Daniel Goodwin

    I have been thinking about the brokering of research and students and also this idea. I think both have mileage and huge potential, one in the advancing of ideas and the other in the sharing of problems.

    However there’s a difficulty with the former, in that much of the research framework for PhDs these days seems to be focused on turning out researchers rather than original research. There’s some work to do with the universities to rebalance this.

    The challenge for teh second is to make the debate as potentially as exciting as the immediate clever wit or yah-boo of much present debate. How would audiences appreciate the elegance of the courtly dance that is implied?

  • Michael Gammage

    Dear Matthew,

    I totally agree about the sterility of most contemporary political discourse, and its devastating effects.

    But instead of this: “restructure the debate around a core principle: each side commits to trying to find out what it is they agree that they disagree about.” , why not focus on what unites those involved?

    We are addicted to adversarialism and its manifestation in the structures and mores of our society (eg party politics) is slowly killing us. It’s become the opposite of Enlightenment – it stifles the life of the mind.

    I wish you well in this initiative. In a way, it’s encouraging that there is such apathy to the contemporary political discourse – it represents a huge section of the population that have rejected punch and judy politics, and is looking for a politics based on respect and grounded in a search for justice and unity.

    Let me stretch your humanist tolerance by admitting to faith – I’m a Baha’i – and suggesting that there is a concomitant ‘spiritual’ dimension that is an essential ingredient here. It’s not religion necessarily but an awakening of the heart, a compassionate and loving solidarity, a consciousness of the oneness of humankind.

    It’s the vital empathy that has figured in your talks and blogs since the summer. With that, everything is possible. Without it, everything is harder, and progress more fragile. Whether it’s inspired by one’s faith or by poetry or art or simply innate or learned doesn’t much matter, but it’s a critical enabler for the new politics.

    Keep up the good work – more power to your elbow!

  • Theodore Taptiklis


    Once again, your obsession here is also mine. In fact, the emergence of a new kind of conversation is, I believe, the key to a ’21st century enlightenment’.

    A distinction that I find helpful is one coined by my friend John Shotter, between “about-ness talk” and “with-ness talk”. About-ness talk has been the staple of the ‘Age of Reason': a form of discourse where the thing being considered is separate from oneself…it’s always about something ‘out there’. About-ness talk favours abstraction, analysis and opinion. About-ness talk is frequently assertive, and tends to presume the possibility of finality and certainty. As it emerges in conversation, the listener senses how heavily it is freighted with underlying assumptions and beliefs. It therefore invites a similarly-freighted and considered response. The picture all of this evokes in my mind is of medieval siege towers, lurching and tilting clumsily at each other. About-ness talk, it seems to me, is set up either for formal argument and rebuttal, without common ground, or – when skilfully presented – simply evokes stunned acquiescence.

    With-ness talk, on the other hand, is more modest in its expression, though ultimately much more far-reaching in its effects It begins with one’s own experience: a ‘small noticing’ that, on reflection, seems interesting and potentially useful. “This is what happened to me…and I was surprised by it” is its typical form. And what happens next is striking. Such an utterance tends to invite a response of the same kind…”I had an experience just like that”, says someone. And a fresh account follows. Invariably this next experience is not just the same, however, but has something original and novel about it that, in turn, invites a new response, and so on. Before long there is a sequence of utterances, out of which arises a whole architecture of insight around the topic under discussion.

    This latter can be described as, “Yes, and” conversation rather than the Yes, but” formula of conventional debate. And though it seems to have small beginnings, it produces profound outcomes. It’s a phenomenon that has been observed by many philosophers of human nature, perhaps particularly by William James. So I wonder if your idea for a new format for public conversation might be able to take this distinction into account as you consider the details of your approach?

    This notion was behind my earlier email to you, that on re-reading, I thought suffered from my usual failing of over-enthusiasm. But I hope you may consider it nonetheless.

    Best wishes,


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  • Hilary Burrage

    Matthew, your concerns about how people communicate (or don’t) are I think very central in the complex age we all live in.

    To respond to your enquiry, perhaps you / others would find my website, of relevance? In this blog I have been trying to identify some of the issues which make for difficulties or success and progress in discourse across a wide range of interests.

    I’d really value people’s thoughts about this approach and the issues which ‘a m s c’ has touched on, and am of course also very willing to support the RSA discussions you propose in any way I can.

  • paul hebden


    This is really interesting. From a Habermasian point of view, I’ve always been tempted by the idea that it might be possible to construct a discourse aimed at approximating his idea of the moral point of view. The paradox is of course, that such a reconstruction is not necessary, if indeed we are the ethical creatures that he thinks we are, since we engage in these discourses all the time.

    One of the interesting things about Habermas’s discourse ethical theory is that it describes a point of view that all humans subjects capable of speaking adopt. You don’t have to be a philosopher to adopt the moral point of view, you just have to be capable of raising or defending a validity claim.

    But why did Habermas think it necessary to defend a moral viewpoint at all? In this context it’s interesting that you cite the series of ‘non-debates’ that you’ve witnessed recently, Habermas seemed to think it necessary to defend the moral point of view against utilitarianism, value skepticism and hypostatised ideas about science.

    He does not set out to defend a particular normative world view, only the idea that, by virtue of our communicative competence, we are a species capable of taking positions on norms.

    And there is something in this if we consider the disconnect that appears to exist between the types of ‘strategic’ or coercive discourses that take place in politics or business or in the never ending scuffles between scientific humanists who advocate the salience of theoretical knowledge (Richard Dawkins) and those who see something in the truth-like ‘validity’ that accompanies practical moral knowledge.

    I would be really interested to see how the RSA manages to develop this further. In terms of engaging representatives to take part in your ‘culture, science, politics’ discourses, wouldn’t each discourse require, at the least, a subject capable of taking part in discourse (ie someone not an expert in culture, science or politics) just merely a discourse subject?

    Paul Hebden

  • Louis Coiffait

    How would the ‘new politics’ described above handle different groups spinning/mis-represent their position/beliefs to be more persuasive? Having an opposition who interprets the outcomes is an important check on such behaviour.

  • Hilary Burrage

    Just to respond briefly to Paul Hebdon’s point above (and Louis Coiffant’s, in a way), the website mentioned above is in fact focused on the nature of constructive discourse, drawing on the experience of those who engage in such dialogue.

    ‘a m s c’ is certainly not the answer to any of this, but it is an attempt to make a start!