Responsible Debate and Quiet Campaigning


Alice König

Senior Lecturer in Latin and Classical Studies,University of St Andrews

“At one time I thought campaigning was about speaking with a loud voice, asserting your point and getting people to hear you. But actually, it’s the value of people caring and being kind and just reaching out and connecting and sharing… A lot of campaigning can feel like it’s a megaphone… but being part of a community is probably more important long term.”

Richard Ratcliffe has learnt a lot about campaigning in the last five years. In March 2016, his wife, Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, was arrested while taking their baby daughter to visit relatives in Iran. She was later convicted of “plotting to overthrow the Iranian government” – a charge which she and her family have always strenuously denied. Representatives of the United Nations, the European Parliament and other international bodies have spoken out; millions of supporters around the world have signed a petition calling for her release; and Richard Ratcliffe has spent years lobbying both the British and Iranian governments to raise her case and try to bring her – and their young daughter – home.

The assumption that campaigning is a noisy, assertive business is widespread. The term itself has military connotations and implies a strenuous, oppositional approach, with one side or viewpoint seeking to overcome another. The environmental protest movement Extinction Rebellion is a recent example: fed up with inertia in the face of the climate emergency, they have called on supporters to ‘rebel’, ‘join the fight’ and engage in acts of (non-violent) civil disobedience in order to communicate their ‘demands’ to governments. Conspicuous, confrontational campaigning can raise the profile of a cause, win new supporters, shake ‘the opposition’, and sometimes even succeed in effecting change. However, ‘megaphone campaigning’ can also result in more entrenched positions and it does not always facilitate respectful or responsible debate – which is crucial if differences are to be resolved and long-term solutions found. Passion drives change faster than apathy; but passion can also narrow perspectives and blind us to other people’s viewpoints.

Evin Prison in Tehran, Iran, where Nazazin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was held for the first four years of her imprisonment.
Photo by Ehsan Iran, licensed for used through Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

Richard Ratcliffe has been fighting for what he holds most dear: his wife, his child and their life together. He could be forgiven for shouting and screaming, for passion, anger and condemnation; but he has found a different route. Even when careless words by Boris Johnson caused a new court case to be brought against his wife in 2017, Ratcliffe allowed himself ‘no space for rage’. That is not to say that he has kept his head down; on the contrary, he has worked tirelessly to keep his wife’s plight in the public eye and to get politicians to feel the urgency of her situation, even joining her on hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy for two weeks in 2019. At all times, however, his campaigning has been characterised by qualities which the YAS Responsible Debate Charter promotes.

Ratcliffe speaks with conviction, but he moderates his passion even when calling attention to the serious injustices which he and his family are enduring. His petition updates leave many readers in tears, but not because he uses emotive or inflammatory language; he tends to understate not overstate, letting events speak for themselves. In interviews and press conferences he speaks with nuance, even when criticising those who have mistreated his wife, Nazanin; he acknowledges different viewpoints, the different pressures that politicians face, and the complexity of Britain’s relations with Iran. He also practises and communicates empathy: “We have got a lot further by remembering that even the Revolutionary Guard are people”. As he puts it, “Where people are honest and empathetic with others’ perspectives, you can always find a way through. Where people are busy triggering each other and try to provoke each other, you are much less likely to find that.” Ratcliffe’s campaigning does not raise people’s hackles up; rather, it creates a non-confrontational, reflective environment in which people on all sides have the space to think, to see each other from different perspectives, and sometimes even to find common ground.

Where has this got him? Speaking out has been a leap of faith, involving risk as well as responsibility; both British and Iranian authorities warned Ratcliffe against campaigning. At the point of writing, he has not yet secured his wife’s release. Ultimately, this is something that only the British and Iranian governments can bring about. He has achieved other things, however. At times, and with the power of Twitter behind him, Ratcliffe’s campaign has helped to improve the conditions in which she was being held or persuaded diplomats to intervene when new court proceedings were initiated. Just as importantly, it has introduced thousands, if not millions, of people around the world to a whole range of miscarriages of justice, bringing campaigners together to champion the causes of many other ‘political prisoners’. Collectively, that campaigning community has challenged the very term ‘political prisoner’; slowly, politely, but with perseverance and conviction, Ratcliffe and others have insisted that their loved ones be described as ‘hostages’ not ‘prisoners’. In changing the terms of reference, they have changed the nature of the debate in political circles, international relations and the media. While Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to President Biden, has not yet publicly used the word ‘hostage’ himself, he has responded to its growing use in media coverage by insisting that the release of Americans unjustly held in Iran is central to the next phase of nuclear talks.

Campaigning is not exactly the same as debating; and often it has little in common with responsible debate. In campaigning, the two ‘sides’ are rarely engaged in any meaningful dialogue, frequently talking past each other from distant positions rather than listening carefully and seeking to understand the other’s perspective. Campaigning can lack nuance, tending towards black and white; it can be prone to exaggeration, even sacrificing accuracy at times for rhetorical effect. Emotional, divisive language is common, and the identification of common ground or shared purpose can be hampered when a campaign is set up as a zero-sum game. This is not true of all campaigning, however; and there are many lessons to be learned about both campaigning and responsible debate from Ratcliffe’s approach. The wheels are grinding painfully slowly, but his judicious use of language, quiet conviction, acknowledgement of complexity and inclusiveness have steadily forged community, built momentum and helped the wider world see Iran’s regular imprisonment of foreign or dual nationals for what it is: state hostage taking. Not all campaigning needs to be done with a megaphone; a great deal can be achieved by adopting the principles of ‘responsible debate’.

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!

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Download the Responsible Debate report