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Recognising concessions in responsible debate

By 3rd November 2021 No Comments

Peter McColl

Futures + Policy

 

from “The Second Coming”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

W.B. Yeats, 1920

This piece relates primarily to Responsible Debate Principle 9: ‘Seek to identify common ground with shared purpose’

Yeats’ famous words are now over a century old:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

They have haunted me for some time.

My interest in responsible debate is driven by a conviction that we need to be able to agree more as a society, and that must be underpinned by good practice in debate. And the problem of the best lacking all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity is one of the fundamental issues I am seeking to address. I am writing this not because I have found the answer, but because I want to explore one of the reasons why I think Yeats’ observation is still so true today. I use the peace process in Northern Ireland, or the North of Ireland, as a worked example below.

There are lots of reasons, but I’m interested in one in particular. And it’s this: the tendency to misunderstand a concession in debate. What I mean by this is the circumstance where one party seeks a compromise by offering to concede a point. Where this is recognised, the favour can be returned, or the nature of that concession discussed. But too often, as I describe below in the context of the Northern Irish peace process, it is ignored. Or even worse, taken as a sign that the party to whom the concession is made was right all along. Because if your opponent is conceding to you, it must be because you’re right… One of the inspirations for the Responsible Debate project is Kal Turnbull, whose Change My View subreddit seeks ways for people to have reasoned debate about contentious subjects on the internet. It would substantially increase the quality of the public sphere if it were seen as a strength to change your mind.

The result is that the perceived winners are those who avoid conceding ground. And once people work that out, it creates a log jam. I first observed it in the Northern Ireland peace process. For nationalists, the partition of Ireland in 1921 was totally artificial, and it appeared natural that decisions about Ireland should be taken on an all-Ireland basis, not based on what they would describe as a ‘statelet’ in the north. For unionists, conceiving of Northern Ireland as a separate political entity was a way to preserve their British identity and have its legitimacy endowed by the British State.

The armed conflict which ensued emerged from nationalists’ belief that they had been excluded from housing, jobs and equal access to political representation. It drew to a close in a politically negotiated process in the early 1990s.

To achieve peace, both sides made concessions. Unionists conceded the principle of consent – that Northern Ireland might not always be part of the United Kingdom – and that if a majority wanted to re-join the rest of Ireland they had the right to do so. Nationalists conceded that until a majority wanted to re-join Eire, Northern Ireland would continue to be part of the United Kingdom. Yet this exacerbated a situation in which what John Barry calls “ungenerous majorities” were dominant.

The parties that negotiated these concessions – an agreement that ended three decades of political violence – were crushed by the electorate. The Ulster Unionists are a shadow of the party they once were, with no representation in the Westminster Parliament; the SDLP have performed poorly. They have been replaced by parties more extreme in their views. And this has not helped to cement any gains in the peace process. In fact, incidents such as the flag protests have made the situation worse.

The outcome of any process where concessions are not properly recognised or valued is that the centre cannot hold. You create a situation where the focus is on grievance, rather than on recognition of the shared concessions and common ground and a desire to strengthen that relationship.

The situation is exacerbated by a secondary behaviour where concessions are seen as indications that the party conceding was wrong all along. Some Unionists bemoaned that after 30 years of political violence, nationalists had finally accepted the existence of Northern Ireland. “All that killing – for what?”

This simultaneously ignores the concessions made by their own side, and minimises those made by the other side as pointless. This toxic combination increased grievance and set the path from the troubles towards a cold war rather than a peace.

It may be emotionally gratifying, but it creates the context for more conflict. It also reduces the possibility of further concessions in the name of peace building.  The path towards ‘zero sum’ interactions, in which one party must win and the other must lose, creates deep polarisation, very often unnecessarily.

One problem with this approach is that it is difficult to identify when a concession has been made. It might be useful to employ external observers, or to seek advice on where concessions have been made. Failing to do this makes the process susceptible to bad actors, who can easily articulate the sort of views that minimise the significance of concessions. In the Northern Ireland peace process this role was played enthusiastically by Ian Paisley.

We can ask that you think carefully about what concessions have been made to us in debate, discussion and negotiation, and I think we should. We should point it out where others fail to see it. And we should try to understand how we can better signal when we make such a concession.

This is something I am exploring, and I would really welcome your reflections and observations on how we can embed this sort of understanding. At a time when polarisation risks poisoning our public sphere, it is even more significant that we recognise concessions as a way of building a shared future.

Recommendations

  1. We may wish to think about responsible debate as a way to positively transform the public sphere, rather than one in which sectional interests are pursued, and consider treating actors who pursue sectional interests accordingly.
  2. When engaging in debate, one way to be responsible is to look actively for concessions by interlocutors and recognise them.
  3. Using independent observers to help understand what concessions have been made may help interlocutors identify and recognise concessions.
Charter for Responsible Debate report cover

This article is part of a series of reflective blog posts on our Charter for Responsible Debate.  It was originally published in our Responsible Debate project report, which also includes the full text of the Charter, an overview of how we created it, and an exercise pack for using the Charter in our everyday lives.

Our Charter for Responsible Debate proposes nine general principles for responsible public debate. They are based on our belief that joint decision-making should be informed, respectful and inclusive.

We hope that the Charter will kick-start some wider conversations about how we can listen well to each other, even when we disagree, and how we can work together to find common ground and a sense of shared purpose. This is key to improving the culture of debate in all areas of our lives: in person and on social media, locally, nationally and internationally.

We hope you will join our growing movement by signing our charter pledge and trying out the principles of Responsible Debate in your everyday life!

learn more
download the Responsible Debate report