Our politicians have a responsibility to improve public debate


This piece by YAS member Matthew Chrisman was originally published as an opinion piece in The Times on Friday October 01 2021.

Matthew Chrisman

Professor of Ethics and Epistemology, University of Edinburgh

Negative, critical, angry, vague, dismissive, evasive. Just a few of the adjectives used to describe political discussions today, whether on social media, in the news or on parliamentary floors.

Democratic politics revolves around disagreement, debate and discussion. However, in recent years, politics is increasingly polarised, and channels of communication are often siloed. Politicians seem to be comfortable using language and tone that is derisory, divisive and inflammatory; some even appear to relish it.

Our politicians can – and must – do better.

That’s why the Young Academy of Scotland has created a new Charter for Responsible Debate and we are urging all party leaders and every MSP in Scotland to sign up to it, with the aim of leading and influencing better, more constructive debate of contentious issues.

You can read and pledge to the charter on our website . It has three themes – informed, respectful, inclusive – and nine principles.

Debate should be informed. That means it should be accurate, based on facts and evidence, with recognition given to the perspectives and experiences of others. Being respectful during debate means listening carefully with an open mind, avoiding inflammatory language, and acknowledging good points that have changed your mind. Addressing imbalances in power, knowledge and access will lead to more inclusive debate and increase the likelihood of reaching a common ground.

Currently, not many politicians in Scotland can claim to uphold these principles all the time. We challenge them to lead by example.

Of course, politicians are an obvious and high-profile group of people who engage in regular debate. But the charter is equally relevant and important for other leaders in public life, as well as the ordinary discussions that happen every day amongst family members, in schools, at workplaces, as part of community organisations, and online.

We are all too familiar with rows that break out on social media, where common sense, decency and good manners seem to disappear at the first hint of an opposing view. Social media platforms can create echo chambers and provide a forum for anti-social behaviour. But the conflict evident in so many social media conversations is creeping into in-person debate, lowering the tone and quality of discussions.

Too often, there is a ‘them versus us’ scenario, where binary, oppositional framing distorts discussion. The result is we get nowhere fast. There are no winners because important issues that affect us all – racism, sexism, gender identities, climate emergency, Brexit, COVID-19, the economy – are starved of the careful attention and discourse they need to reach fair outcomes.

We believe it is possible to disagree constructively by committing to the key principles in our charter. Controversial topics and contentious issues can be discussed in ways which lead to common understanding and a sense of shared purpose.

We must be open to differences of opinion, to listening to alternative views and to ensuring a range of voices are heard, not just the loudest and most controversial.