Fostering good debate

Thursday 9 June 2022

The first event to be funded by the University’s Scotland’s Future Series brought staff, students and members of the wider St Andrews community together to discuss how we can listen better and debate more collaboratively.

Organised by the RSE Young Academy of Scotland (YAS) and the University’s Ethics Cup team, the event in Lower College Hall last week (Wednesday 1 June) focussed on the importance of responsible debate in an increasingly polarised world.

At the event, Dr Alice König, Senior Lecturer in the School of Classics and a member of the Young Academy of Scotland, introduced the YAS Charter for Responsible Debate before handing over to panel chair Ben Sachs, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and organiser of the Ethics Cup.

Dundee West MP and St Andrews alumnus Chris Law, the University’s Head of Mediation and Wellbeing, Ruth Unsworth, Professor Stephen Gethins from the School of International Relations, and YAS member and former Edinburgh University rector Peter McColl responded to a series of questions from the chair and the floor, with each speaking from their own experiences of being involved in public debate or in situations requiring negotiation.

Pictured at the event are (from left) Ben Sachs, Ruth Unsworth, Peter McColl, Chris Law MP and Professor Stephen Gethins

Commenting from the perspective of a Member of Parliament for the last seven years, Chris said that one of the greatest challenges to responsible debate is an erosion of basic values and integrity, pointing to the ‘Partygate’ scandal at Westminster which has seen MPs calling out Prime Minister Boris Johnson for lying to the House. 

He said: “When people are so entrenched in their views, there can be an erosion of the higher values we try to achieve, and that causes an issue. Since I’ve been elected, two MPs, a policeman working in Parliament and four bystanders on Westminster Bridge have been murdered. It is so important to have informed, considerate debate and important that there are winners on all sides.”

Ruth said she believed that listening is key to understanding someone else’s point of view, stressing that the kind of listening we need to do involves a sincere effort to understand and empathise with alternative viewpoints. As she explained, understanding is not necessarily the same as agreeing with someone, but it can make for better, less confrontational debate. She also encouraged participants to think about the ‘brave space’ model of debate, as an alternative to ‘safe spaces’ for debate. Responsible, constructive debate should not always feel comfortable.

Debating an issue from the opposite side to your own can be crucial to understanding the arguments on all sides, according to Stephen, who said he uses this technique with students as well as in political contexts. He also drew attention to entrenched habits of thought that we don’t often question, but which colour our views and reactions to others. 

“We are so used to accepting received wisdom, but we need to challenge that.” Referring to his time in Parliament, he said: “One of the best ways of working with others who don’t always share the same beliefs is by committee. We could all be from different parties but, on the committee, we worked as a team.”

Peter said one of the greatest challenges to responsible debate, in his opinion, is “bad actors” like former US President Donald Trump who “aim to wreck the debate” and UK PM Boris Johnson, whose “modus operandi is to despoil public debate so he can be elected as the funniest of a bad bunch”. Peter and others on the panel talked of the value of finding common ground and shared purpose with people of different sides of the debate. This can help those involved feel that they have ‘won’ something out of the discussion, as well as making progress towards some kind of resolution or positive action. 

During the second half of the event, participants took part in two interactive exercises. The first focused on the principle that belief is not binary. Lots of the debates on TV, in politics and in traditional debating competitions are structured in ways that push us to think of belief as binary. Individual sides are assigned ‘proposition’ or ‘opposition’, for example. However, on any given topic – for example, the proposition ‘seagulls are a public nuisance’ – it is not usually the case that we simply believe it or do not believe it; instead, belief comes in degrees. We may be very confident about some of the things we believe, but much less so about others.

This is important because it affects how we see new arguments and evidence. It is much less of a commitment to simply adjust a degree of belief up or down a little than it is to say “I no longer believe this thing I once held to be true”. This means that the psychological barriers to accepting new evidence and new arguments are much lower when we think in terms of degrees of belief than when we think in the binary. We can stop thinking of arguments as bad if they do not change our minds from one binary state to another. Instead, we can imagine that new arguments we encounter are asking us to update our confidence levels in our beliefs. That insight helps us not to feel threatened by counter arguments but to welcome them as helping us to refine and update our position on different issues.

The second exercise involved listening to another person’s arguments carefully, without intervening, and then repeating back their arguments as accurately as possible. This revealed some fascinating things about how often we interpret (and misinterpret) other people’s arguments as we listen; how we can be tempted to tone down other people’s inflammatory language when we don’t agree with it; and how hard it is not to interject with our own views and simply consider another person’s perspective without prejudice. 

The event concluded with some roundtable discussion of other tools and techniques for making discussion less confrontational.

To find out more and listen to the first five podcasts, visit the Scotland’s Future Series web page.

Category Scotland's Future Series

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