Creating a Charter for Responsible Public Debate

Social acts of mind…can have no existence without the intervention of some other intelligent being, who acts a part in them.” —Thomas Reid, Founding Fellow of the RSE

Democracies pride themselves in allowing space for free political discussion as a way of peacefully working out compromises for how to live together in the context of opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation and competition over scarce resources. Because of this, we need ways of disagreeing with each other and yet achieving common ground. Politics has always been a place of disagreement and debate, but recent politics – especially in the age of social media – seems to be increasingly polarised. So the question we want to address is whether there are there better and worse ways to disagree with one another? Can responsible public debate renew democracy?

To do begin to do so, we are attempting to identify possible principles for responsible public discussion of contentious issues. Our idea is that common acknowledgement of these principles and good faith attempts to live up to them will improve public political debate. We imagine these principles being explicitly adopted in legislative bodies and hustings chambers, boardrooms and classrooms, and even in online forums where contentious issues are discussed amongst people who do not agree with each other but who share common cause and are committed to living together in mutually beneficial ways.

We organised a one-day event in May 2019 with politicians, media personalities, campaigners, activists and academics to share experience and propose possible principles for a draft Charter for Responsible Public Debate Charter.

In August, we hosted an RSE Curious event where members of the public were invited to contribute to the ongoing development of our charter for responsible public debate by commenting on the principles proposed at the event in May and proposing their own principles. The most popular principles amongst this group were:

  • listen well
  • treat opponents with respect
  • form opinions scientifically
  • use language carefully
  • reframe being ‘right’ and ‘wrong’

The full list of principles (current draft charter):

  • Lay down your weapons; don’t try to prevent your opponent from thinking at their best.
  • Avoid arguments ad hominem.
  • Behave with respect for opponents and audiences
  • Avoid appeals to emotion for rhetorical effect. It just leads to a stand-off about whose feelings are more important.
  • Prioritise accuracy, e.g. say ‘some’ rather than ‘all’ (unless you mean ‘all’) and make it easy to disambiguate what you mean from other likely or possible interpretations.
  • Form opinions with scientific debate as a model: after considering the counterarguments carefully and without only seeking support for initial judgements.
  • Use language carefully and avoid personal or offensive remarks.
  • Balance confidence in your own position with a willingness to be open to challenge; challenges allows you to test and hone your ideas.
  • Listen well (individually and collectively); the quality of our collective thinking depends on it.
  • Be charitable – look for the best in opposing arguments, not the worst.
  • Look for common ground and shared interests.
  • Be open to changing minds (ours and our opponents).
  • Recognise that it’s alright to ‘be wrong’. Being right doesn’t mean winning and acknowledging mistakes can greatly benefit learning.
  • Nullius in verba; truth does not come from authority but from critical examination of the evidence.
  • Assume your interlocutor is part of a common community and equally concerned with the common good.
  • Encourage contradictory ideas online while upholding courtesy and respect.

Our next step is to continue to hold civic events where members of the public can feed into our attempts to refine and add to the principles emerging from our work so far.  Thank you to everyone who has already contributed.

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Meet Our Members

Victoria Loughlan
She designs and delivers interactive and visual ‘big picture thinking’ sessions for senior officials. These sessions focus on addressing key policy challenges, teasing out their interdependencies, and situating them in their global context.

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