Creating a Charter for Responsible Public Debate

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 "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, the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Young Academy of Scotland organised a 1-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. The event was hosted by Matthew Chrisman, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, with the help of fellow YAS members Alice König, Peter McColl, and John O’Connor. Invited speakers included: Harriet HarrisKen MacintoshStephen ReicherKathleeen StockKal TurnbullJim WallaceKirsty Wark. YAS key discussants were Maria Azeredo de Dornelas, James Blake, Stephen O’Rourke, Nasar Meer, Nikki Moran.

Possible Principles Emerged from this Discussion:

  • 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.

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Claire is a Lecturer in earth sciences at the University of St Andrews. Her cross-disciplinary research is focused on the robotic exploration of Mars and icy moons, with the view to search for evidence of microbial life beyond Earth.

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10 May 2019
Democracies pride themselves in allowing space for free political discussion as a way of peacefully ...