Our Beacon Forum

Toward a culture of dignified debate
By:Farhan Shah, Norway
Date: Tuesday, 18 September 2018, 11:01 am

Developments in human societies are moving towards greater globalisation, and with it follows multiculturalism, where people with more or less different beliefs and views of life are in more intimate interaction with each other than ever before. When physical boundaries are weakened and people come closer to each other emotionally, culturally and intellectually, the possibilities for disagreements on how different issues are to be understood and debated also increases. Disagreements – which do not satisfy certain principles for a meaningful and rational culture of discussion, can quickly degrade to a level where various fallacies such as ad hominem and straw man dominates. In an increasingly world of cyberspace, there is in particular greater possibilities for broader mutual understanding, tolerance and respect, but also greater prejudices, hatefulness and negative othering. When the distinction between "impartiality" and "partiality", between "person" and "case" is blurred, it then becomes easy to downplay the underlying elements in healthy human interaction: the dignity of the individual and a sober exchange of views that criticizes issues or other competing views without being overpowered by negative feelings and a confrontational rhetoric.

If the aim is to protect a meaningful exchange of views against fallacies and a polarised development, it is simply a necessity to reach a consensus on certain fundamental guidelines for a constructive and rational culture of discussion; a set of essential precepts for a civilised debate. In this context, the Norwegian (eco)philosopher Arne Næss (1912-2009) can be a helpful resource.

The principles of reasonable debate in a nutshell

Arne Næss developed his theory of reasonable debate in his textbook En del elementære logiske emner (English: Some elementary logical topics) (1961). In what follows, a brief presentation of Næss` maxims will be presented:

1. Avoid tendentious irrelevance, i.e., refrain from including unnecessary information that is not relevant in the specific case under discussion.

2. Avoid tendentious quoting, i.e., do not render the opponent’s opinion(s) in an incorrect way, tending to put him/her in a negative light.

3. Avoid tendentious ambiguity, i.e., do not communicate in a way that causes readers/audiences to interpret your opponent`s views in an unfortunate, disadvantageous manner.

4. Avoid tendentious use of straw man, i.e., avoid assigning opinions and assertions to the opponent that he/she does not hold.

5. Avoid tendentious statements of fact, i.e., do not consciously neglect or distort information put forward, tending to strengthen only one party at the expense of the other, thus putting the opponent in a negative light.

6. Avoid tendentious tone of presentation, i.e., avoid the use of personal attacks, satire, sarcasm, subtle or explicit threats and hyperbole.

A common ideal

By incorporating the abovementioned six maxims for healthy and rational debate into our own mind, we can, as responsible citizens of the world, contribute to a more open, dignified and dynamic climate of debate, thus creating a much needed space for fresh insights, perspectives and understandings in the public sphere. In line with Arne Næss` principles of debate, we should emphasize the fundamental ideals of humanism as tolerance and respect for the individual subject as an antidote to toxic and polarising rhetoric and irrational culture of debate, which is flourishing in social media and effecting many lives in a negative manner. The next time we choose to participate in debates, whether physical or on social media, we should take a metacognitive approach and ask ourselves the following questions, both before and during debate: am I contributing to a more hygienic and sober culture of debate, or do I contribute to lower the standard(s)? Do I want my mode of debate to become a universal norm? In other words, can I accept that other individuals debate in the same manner as I do?