Less opinion, more debate, please
14 March 2009
Imagine that, instead of being an article in a newspaper, these words were part of an opinionated dinner-party conversation. Across the table is someone presenting a controversial and contrarian view – Melanie Phillips, perhaps, or Ken Livingstone.
The question is this. Would you enjoy becoming involved in the discussion as it warmed up, or would you be gripped by a sense of social unease and wish you had stayed home to watch TV?
For many English people, ideas are fine in their place – in a book or a newspaper, on stage, on the radio – but do not belong in polite society. “There is a coldness in English social life,” the populist philosopher Alain de Botton has recently complained. “No one reveals anything, says anything that is in any way naked, vulnerable, interesting, honest.”
It is a rather surprisingly sweeping statement from a man of ideas and, at first glance, looks little more than a re-tread of that old cliché of social history, the uptightness of the English. Yet de Botton is pointing up something true and paradoxical. In an age which prides itself on its openness, we are actually becoming less adept at serious discussion – or at least less able to disagree in an interesting way – than once we were.
Yet we are supposed to be rather good at nakedness and honesty these days. At the slightest excuse, people in public life will strip down at least to their emotional underwear. A whole industry, damply heaving with emotion, has been constructed around vulnerability. The success of debating societies like Intelligence Squared suggests there is even a certain hunger for seriousness among those dissatisfied by the thin gruel offered by the traditional media. Given the enthusiasm with which thousands of people blog their views across the internet, it would seem we are living through a golden age of opinion.
Opinion, though, is different from debate; indeed, it is sometimes its polar opposite. Somewhere along the line, an intellectual flexibility, a curiosity about the views of those who disagree with us, has been lost. Open-mindedness has become confused with indecisiveness. For any point of view now to be taken seriously, it needs to represent a hard, straight line of unquestionable conviction. Complexity has become suspect.
It is the age of the shout. Public debate has become confrontational rather than exploratory, and that approach to discussion – listening only to the other side in order to find something to refute – has spilt into everyday life. In this context, it is unsurprising that people like to shelter behind small talk: better the conversational coldness to which de Botton refers than the pointless heat of a row.
It may be that a class or generational element is at work here – the middle-class and middle-aged tend to be wary of nakedness – but I suspect the decline in open-minded debate is part of a wider, more alarming picture.
Those in public and in private life tend to share one very modern concern. They want to know what side they are on – behind which solid block of beliefs they are hunkering down.
Eager to find others who hold identical opinions, they read and listen to only those with whom they are in agreement. They avoid becoming contaminated by views which risk changing their mind.