Things I’d like to see in the media: contrived debates #auspol

Following on from yesterday’s post about wanting to see more journalists acting as the audience’s avatar rather than as a hostile pseudo-expert, today’s ‘Things I’d Like to See in the Media’ entry is somewhat difficult — and almost counterintuitive — to explain.  I want to see public intellectuals engaged in debates where they advocate positions contrary to their usual.

I am not convinced that most of our opinion writers actually understand the positions they’re arguing against.  This was certainly true of any person who used the phrase ‘race to the bottom’ with reference to the major parties’ asylum seeker policies.  Both ‘sides’ of politics are equally guilty; there is simply too much reward for misrepresenting your political opponents’ argument.

We also have a culture where we are encouraged to reject unconditionally and uncritically any arguments that don’t suit our political position.  The only valid positions are the ones that are compatible with our intuitions.  Just as two people could not come to different correct answers to the question ‘Is there a largest prime number?’, the Laws of Rationality demand concurrence in political, social, and cultural questions.

The sort of thing that we need in our media is a space in which people agree to advocate for positions that they do not personally hold.  If this is a rational discussion, people of sufficient intellect should be able to construct their opponents’ political positions in ways that are convincing and satisfying.

We are entitled to hold our various beliefs and opinions if and only if we are justified in rejecting the best argument against them.  The pop-atheist routinely demonstrates that they’re not holding justifiable positions when they refuse to engage with the best available theology (this statement is also true of most religious folk).  The climate change sceptics demonstrate that they’re not holding justifiable positions when they refuse to engage with the best available science.  Ethical relativists demonstrate that they’re not holding justifiable positions when they refuse to engage with the best available philosophy.

It seems almost trivially true to assert that the only way to know if you can refute the best available arguments against your position is if you yourself can construct an argument against your own position.  Thus, our best public intellectuals should relish the opportunity to construct the best available attack on their own beliefs.

There’s an obvious reason why we never see this kind of discussion: our public commentators are way too partisan.  Arguing is not merely an intellectual exercise where we demonstrate the extent to which we deserve the title ‘Homo sapiens’.  Arguing is the process through which we further our political ambitions or the political ambitions of people we support.  The Institute for Public Affairs is never going to partake in an event where they argue in favour of the welfare state, for example.  Why?  Because they rely on donations from enormous companies who would directly benefit from libertarian policies.  The Greens’ Party is never going to partake in an event where they argue in favour of offshore processing of asylum seekers, for example.  Why?  Because they rely on their supporters never entertaining the possibility that it’s a reasonable policy.  And so on and so forth.

What we really need is non-partisan opinion writers (I say self-interestedly, being one of the very few conservatives I know who isn’t wedded to a political party).  We need people who are more interested in exploring ideas than they are in securing particular political outcomes.  We need public intellectuals who are genuinely on the side of the public.

That we can’t have this sort of ‘contrived debate’ is more than just a mere shame; it is an indictment of our commentariat.


7 thoughts on “Things I’d like to see in the media: contrived debates #auspol

  1. Interesting idea, much in line with John Stuart Mill (Ch.2, On Liberty). But as you conclude, hardly likely to happen. There is however something somewhat similar, with the advantage of being both possible and real (though only, so far, at a modest scale). The deliberation platform YourView ( rewards participants for exhibiting “epistemic virtues” by raising their “credibility” score. One of the mechanisms by which this happens is that you earn much more credibility for making a point which appeals to (is upvoted by) those who disagree with you on the main issue in dispute. This encourages serious participants to understand and respect the opposing arguments. And as an additional benefit, comments can be sorted by credibility, so that the comments which engage most constructively with the opposing side rise to the top.

  2. That would be must-see TV – politicans and commentators have to argue their opponents’ side. You’d just need a motivation for them to do this, plus a valid voting system. ANy thoughts? I’m sure it’s possible!

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