'I'm right.' 'You're not'

April 20, 2007

The point of many public debates initiated in the media is not enlightenment but controversy. A. C. Grayling deplores the rise of strife and unconstructive wrangling

There is a rich and flourishing tradition of public debate in Britain, but one thing that perennially threatens to undermine it is contrarianism. By this is meant the deliberate adoption of oppositional points of view in order to generate controversy, mainly in order to sell more newspapers or to attract more viewers to television programmes.

Opposing someone's point of view not because of genuine disagreement but purely to get an argument going can have deleterious consequences for the national discussion because it distorts the true state of opinion and stands in the way of sensible conclusions.

Contrarianism, as disputation for the sake of disputation, is the bastard offspring of something that is worthwhile and appropriate, namely the process of testing views, theories, policies, or whatever else is offered for public consumption in the way of ideas, by challenge and debate. The idea that truth, or at least sensible conclusions, can be reached by these means is what underlies the traditional adversarial methods of Parliament and the courts of law. Debates in the former, together with questions to ministers and the work of select committees, serve the same function as the presentation of cases for the prosecution and defence in court. Claims are subjected to scrutiny and evaluation by the forensic technique of cross-examination, which is central to eliciting clarification and, in the ideal, truth.

The principle underlying the legitimate parent of contrarianism is what Plato called "dialectic", the process of debate that reaches sound conclusions through the co-operation of the parties, who ask seriously intentioned probing questions and answer them truthfully and constructively. Adversarial challenge for the sole purpose of defeating an opponent, or merely rousing controversy, is a different thing, one that Plato called "eristic", a word with unedifying connotations of "wrangling" and "strife".

Eristic is what contrarianism is all about. Although the main reason for its prevalence in contemporary public debate is that controversies, quarrels, exposes and attacks sell newspapers and get people switching on their television sets, there is another reason. This is that the public media think they are engaging in dialectic on whatever happens to be the hot topic of the day, when despite their good intentions they are in fact promoting eristic.

A good example is the BBC's scrupulous endeavour to achieve balance in discussions on the airwaves. This admirable aim very often results in distortions, because it gives the impression that the world divides 50:50 on every topic, whereas often the proponents of opposing views represent very different actual weightings of opinion - the whole scientific community against one maverick, for example. And whereas the maverick might be right and the whole scientific community wrong on the particular question at issue, it is somewhat more usual that matters are otherwise.

The maverick might even be pushing an irresponsible line - for example, over childhood vaccinations - and by being made to appear 50 per cent of the expert opinion on the subject might so influence the public that the result is harmful for efforts to control childhood diseases.

I have often been a member of panels discussing some question about the place of religion in public life. Typically, such panels have five members: a Protestant Christian, a Catholic Christian, a Muslim, a Jewish person and me as the token atheist-cum-humanist-cum-secularist. Between them my four fellow panellists represent an active constituency of at most 8 per cent of the population, meaning by "active" that proportion of the population that attends a religious service at least once a week. Whereas a majority of the population might have various beliefs of a feng shui, astrology, deistic or vaguely Christian kind it is practically certain that they do not wish to have their lives run by a religious organisation intent on imposing a uniformity of belief and behaviour on them. Accordingly, I represent, at least partially, some aspect of functional secularism in the majority of the population, yet in debates on the subject sit as one out of five (and sometimes more) on the panel.

The desire to have all viewpoints represented is the worthy cause of this distortion, but the downside of it is that it feeds the contrarian nature of public debate. Contrast the case of having disinterested (not, note, uninterested) experts discussing the question rather than an assemblage of partisan representatives with agendas and a stake in seeing their own preferred outcomes prevail. Invocation of disinterested expertise was once a frequent option in debates about matters of public concern, but it suddenly became much less so in the early 1970s (and has remained so since) as a result of a rapidly influential view that no such thing as disinterested expert opinion is possible. All viewpoints are partisan, said the new voice of suspicion, and sonorous expertise is just a disguise for the Establishment view or some hidden tendentious position.

And so indeed it can be; the suspicion is not without grounds. Moreover, the ideal of allowing all voices, especially minority ones, to have their say, and to advance all gradations of opinion into the light, is not just an application of one of the most precious of all liberties, namely freedom of speech, but an intrinsic good. For all society to hear the opinions of the various constituencies it contains, and to be exposed to contrasting suggestions about how things should be, is healthy and positive.

How is this latter desirable state of affairs to be protected from collapsing into mere eristic and contrarianism? One suggestion might be to take a hint from the way courts of law conduct themselves. In criminal proceedings, a jury considers the case presented to it by the prosecution and listens to considerations adduced by the defence in order to cast doubts on that case, and then debates what it has heard and seen before telling the judge what it concludes. During the proceedings jury members are likely to hear the accused being questioned by both sides, the prosecution examining his testimony and the defence eliciting his explanation of why the alleged facts in the case appear as they do. Other witnesses might be called, having things to report that bear relevantly on the matter in hand.

The essential characteristic of the parts played by counsel, defendant and witnesses in court is that they are genuinely relevant to the case, and the judge ensures that the contributions they all make to the process are appropriate and pertinent. If public debate in general were conducted according to similar principles, there would be much less likelihood of the process being trumped-up for the mere purpose of having an argument.

But who or what is to play the role of judge, ensuring that the process is fair and that the participants behave appropriately? One answer might be: the public. But this is an optimistic suggestion. Cynics will point out that Rome's emperors well knew what they were about in providing spectacles in the Coliseum - gladiator fights, martyrs fed to lions, even sea battles enacted with half-size ships in a flooded arena (and with real fighting leading to death and dismemberment in Rome's usual and deplorable way). In short, the public appetite is for a fight, say the cynics, with blood as at least a figurative preferred outcome. The niceties of courteous debate with everyone observing canons of fairness is not half so much fun.

Even without going the whole length of this cynical view, it is obvious enough that the reason why so many newspapers and television programmes offer eristic rather than dialectic is because eristic attracts the punters. To that extent it really is over-optimistic to expect editors to always choose debate modelled on subdued courtroom niceties.

Of course it is not true that judicious and constructive debate is wholly absent from either print media or the airwaves; serious magazines and late-night programmes achieve exactly the kind of collegial dialectic that Plato would applaud. But they serve small minorities, and the cynics were not thinking of them when they pointed to the Coliseum as the model for today's contrarianism.

The worst feature of contrarianism is that it paralyses proper debate about a range of serious and important public issues. Take, for example, the questions of drugs and prostitution. The criminalisation of certain drugs, some of them less harmful than tobacco and alcohol, creates rather than solves problems by promoting a flourishing and dangerous criminal industry (which in turn soaks up huge amounts of police time and effort), by forcing the supply and use of drugs underground, by obliging many users to become criminals to feed their habits, by putting them at risk of impure or variable quality supplies and by discouraging them from seeking medical help.

Likewise, the laws governing prostitution force sex workers on to the street and into the arms of pimps, encourage human trafficking, link prostitution to the drug industry and leave sex workers to the doubtful mercies of criminals and inclement weather, while most of these problems would be at least diminished by legalising brothels. In view of the fact that prostitution is nigh impossible to get rid of, a more humane and sensible policy towards it should prevail.

But neither of these matters can be discussed sensibly in the prevailing climate of contrarianism in public debate. Imagine a senior politician proposing the legalisation of drugs and brothels. The tabloid headlines and the amplification for eristic purposes of the voice of Outraged of Tunbridge Wells would not merely warp the debate into an exchange of hysterical one-liners but would end the career of the politician who started it. For this reason, the profoundly unsatisfactory state of the law with regard to personal morality continues to create difficulties that, in human terms (and far less importantly, but hugely, in money terms too), carry a dramatically heavy cost.

In the absence of the kind of public seriousness and maturity that would make all debate about such questions take the form of Platonic dialectic rather than eristic, the remedy has to lie in the hands first of those who are invited to take part in contrariarly contrived debate, and second in the good sense of those for whom it is staged. Another experience commonly had in this connection by "content providers" (as the media call them, meaning the people invited to comment or contribute) is being telephoned by a television programme, radio station or newspaper seeking someone who will propose or contest a view for which they have the opposite party already lined up. It might be a topic in which the "content provider" has an interest or some expertise; but if he or she agrees with the other "content provider" already waiting, the broadcaster or newspaper will keep looking until they have found someone to disagree.

Sometimes this is a function of the desire to have a view tested by disagreement; sometimes it is mere contrarianism at full throttle. The desirable state of affairs is for the public to become good at distinguishing which is which, to the point where the media find it less easy to get away with stirring up arguments for the mere sake of their pulling power, indifferent to whether the debate will produce truth or a worthwhile conclusion.

That is the key to what is wrong with contrarianism: its indifference to worthwhile conclusions. The aim of eristic is nothing other than itself - it exists just for the sake of the wrangle and the strife. Given that the aim of dialectic is truth or better understanding, it is at best a scandal and at worst a tragedy that the former is so often substituted for the latter. But that is how it is, and will doubtless remain so until better days dawn.

A. C. Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London.

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