Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

Debate? Where is it now?

In Uncategorized on March 14, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Debate. I don’t mean the Soundbite, or the Sneer, nor Banter, but Debate, the stuff that used to involve swords physical and then swords metaphorical. Where is it? It used to be everywhere, in the pub, in the corridor, around the meal table, even, yes, even, in Parliament. Socrates offered he had no knowledge; that he wasn’t a teacher but a midwife, giving birth to our ideas. Catherine de Heuck Doherty cited that it’s possible ‘to listen a person’s soul into existence’.  Mark Antony and Boris Johnson both required our ears. Pontius Pilate asked the crowd their thoughts. George Knightley said ‘Badly done Emma!’ after the excruciating picnic scene.

So what’s happened? Where do you get a response to your serious enquiry? Not across the Despatch Box as obfuscation and ad hominems are the art of the professional politician.

This is all odd. Debate should be legion. Why? Because modern Britain is built on Modernity. Modernity is built on Rationalism. Rationalists Reason. Reason is subject to… erm? Reason should be subject to Reason. But in practice rarely is. Reason goes unchallenged, left in its own juices, without a topspin-backhand-cross-court anything.

Why then?

Good rollicking Socratic Debate required the Public Space; a pushing back of chairs and voilà, a forum. The office, the factory, the Town Square, the agenda, the meal table are intrinsically spaces. Physical vacuums to be filled. Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair has Sarah encountering Smythe at Speaker’s Corner as critical to her angst.

But, rationalism has taken a new turn since its inception. It has encountered the professional, the policy, the ‘best practice’ guide. All high points of modernity. What required judgement and discernment is now on a 40-page Internet Training Programme with multiple choices of four-answers-per-question. This isn’t the sort of rationalism that has been subjected to reason alone, but expediency. Has it not dawned that removing human volition from decision making not only lowers risk but removes cognition and engagement and learning?

The public space has been filled by processes instead of substance and we are disengaged then? Well, if you do not have Jane Austen’s Emma picnicking in the Surrey countryside and falling foul of her peers you don’t have her redemption*. If you do not take the risk of free-debate you don’t have us against the mirror of our world.

Reason and rationalism were never meant to reduce risk; it was meant to increase it. Charles Taylor says modernity has to be rescued from its supporters. Modern professional management is not about deciding the agenda’s outcomes before the meeting; or putting effort into leading people to decisions you have categorically not previously exposed to anyone. The strident decision comes after strident long-structures of exposure of yourself to the ‘public spaces’ where you feel the multiplicity of opinion on you and your thinking. The strident decision might still be required in the face of immediate threat but even then should be preceded by the public space. Otherwise we wear the wrong lenses on the world for years as Sebastian Faulks deftly suggests in his recent fiction series*.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a writer who should inveigle himself into all public spaces, wrote of the Crystal Palace of Reason. Shiny and unassailable self-righteous reason. A reason without paradox or irony. Kierkegaard went further and implied paradox was reason. George Barrett reminds it was rational for the industrial-heartbeat to appeal to the Law of Large Numbers and ignore the quality of the individual. Truth existed in the crowd and mass, Barrett paraphrases. But the mass doesn’t brook the individual’s voice or any voice. The mass is not a true space.

In real reality, Reason is not Subject to Reason and therefore isn’t Reasonable. Debate has been subsumed by a round-about-journey to give itself over to this bastard-variant-of- Reason; the version that gives only a thesis but no antithesis. Modern management plays its role in allowing the public space to be closed off; expunged from the agenda, written out of the Core Values. In fact core value statements would not be badly done by adding ‘We Protect the Space’. We fear the space as Emma feared George’s admonition. In one sense we have gone against modernity’s Core Values.

Michael Mayne refers to Ian McEwan’s suggestion that a discreet life reveals only a discreet soul. McEwan’s characters are often battling between Reason and Feeling. The undertone is asking where is Truth; in the argument or in the mood through which the argument is filtered? In modern management and modern life we have learnt to be discreet to the extent we say nothing in debate as the Rational Man and Woman guard their tongues from falling foul of policy. Circumspection was meant to protect ‘the good’ but its cloth has overlaid the space and its Debate.

There is something here then about the need to be judiciously indiscreet, thoughtfully unguarded about our ideas (not the person as we have the gift of the conceptual, of indirectness, to protect our vulnerable interlocutors – destructive narratives can be left to the Red Tops), naively catholic and prepared for admonition if we are to live or what Charles Taylor calls Flourish. So maybe the journey into indiscreetness will re-open Debate. If not are we truly happy with our professional conservatism, and to continue to suffer pinched imprisonment of our thoughts; are we as at ease as we think inside this current Crystal Palace? I don’t think so. Badly done Emma.

*See Sebastian Faulks’ BBC series: