The degradation of civil public discourse relates to systemic and structural changes in our information ecology and there is no panacea for addressing them. For instance ‘cultural polarisation’ is merely one difficulty with public sensemaking, and that is both cause and consequence of the business and technological design features of social media and smartphone addiction; those features weaken attention spans, which in turn increases confirmation bias and reduces susceptibility to nuance, which makes certain kinds of speaking and listening harder. Yet there is growing interest in longform online material, including podcast interviews lasting over two hours; and growing evidence that people are in fact less polarised than they experience and report themselves to be.
One of the questions that informs this project is therefore: When our history of collective sensemaking is juxtaposed with our current cultural context, what kinds of speaking, listening and thinking should we seek to encourage in the public sphere?
Some have sought to bring diverse viewpoints together in search of common ground, for instance at The Heterodox Academy, The Forgiveness Project, More in Common, The Collective Psychology Project and there a range of authentic relational practices and dialogue projects around the world, including established mediation, conflict resolution services and marriage counselling techniques, not to mention the best longform podcasts like On Being.
Various forms of slow empathetic discourse have their rightful place, but in our current historical context, where the smartphone is the new axis mundi, filter bubbles prevail and attention is easily hijacked, there appears to be little chance that dialogue alone will help reduce polarisation or significantly influence collective sensemaking. Good dialogue is essential, powerful and can be transformative, yes, but it may not be sufficiently scalable to significantly improve public discourse because it often lacks the narrative tension, projective identification, tacit mythos and visceral hit of a public contest.
In principle, debates are supposed to provide those qualities of spectacle, which is understood here in the positive sense of something spectacular that holds your attention; however, such spectacles often descend into the negative meaning of the term, and are often falsely premised on clarifying disagreements and bringing everyone closer to truth in a convivial dialectical process. In practice, alas, participants often clamour for attention, stoking tribal sentiment in memorable attack lines, soundbites, and straw-man arguments.
If the aim is to protect and strengthen the epistemic commons required for peace, democracy and societal harmony to be possible, it is time to acknowledge that debates increasingly undermine that aim, because they rarely elicit or promote shared insight and understanding, and serve to reinforce and amplify the cultural and technological generator functions of the problem.
Today’s cultural and technological climate is very different from even twenty years ago. It appears that qualities such as paradox, nuance and complexity are not merely valued less than they used to be, but, principally through social media, they have been structurally disincentivized by the weaponisation of affect in the service of tribal solidarity.
The prevailing pressures of speed, information overload and the ubiquity of confirmation bias have become defining features of the cultural soil in which the presumed civic fruits of debate are expected to grow.
Debate is not monolithic, and not all debates are over-politicised or otherwise problematic. Debates do, however, have a totemic quality for society at large. They are a valued and established social practice that reflect and reinforce a view of the world that is mostly binary, affords high status to ratiocination, quick thinking, confident articulation, a ‘gotcha’ capacity to seek out the weakest aspects of alternative views, and a form of competition that is mostly zero-sum. One reason this project is timely is that the first 2020 Presidential debate may be viewed as a nadir for the practice: it was so cacophonous, discordant and undignified that few would have felt any the wiser afterwards.
Perspectiva therefore seeks to venture beyond prevailing critiques of debates as a social good by giving birth to an alternative social practice, the antidebate, that we believe will more effectively speak to the main epistemic and cultural challenges of our time. We seek to design, try out, refine and propagate an inspiring form of epistemic praxis grounded in intellectual humility, with at least the following points of emphasis:
The ‘anti’ feature of the antidebate is not therefore about being against powerful speech, or competition, or intellectual entertainment, or disagreement. Rather, it’s against the compounding of polarisation, overvaluing speed as a feature of thought and speech, sophistry of all kinds, unreasonable certainty, and an over-emphasis on the kind of partial truth that might win the moment and play to the crowd, while disregarding ‘the whole truth’ that tends to be orphaned by the debate format, rather than its touchstone.