Being an atheist and a committed secularist, it’s not often that I support comments made by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. But certain comments made in his New Year message were spot on. Referring to the degree of social division and anger that has been stirred up by the EU referendum and subsequent events, he noted that we not only “disagree on many things” but that “we are struggling to disagree well”. If anything, I would put it more strongly. Everyone seems to have an opinion, often a very strongly held opinion, and many are strongly dismissive of contrary opinions. This seems to be fuelling social tensions that are only likely to increase. And this is all deeply worrying. The remedy, I suggest, is that we all need to develop our ability to critically discuss important issues; we need to learn the arts of public debate and critical thinking.
These are abilities that community philosophy helps to develop. At the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group we have one golden rule – that we are critical of ideas, not of the person expressing them. This may sound very simple and straightforward, but in practice it is anything but. It means that when listening to an opinion that you don’t agree with you really do need to listen to what the other person is saying, not just hear them; the quick and easy thing to do is to assign the other person to a stereotype and then attack that caricature – often with an insult. It also means that you need to think clearly about why you disagree with their opinion; you need to do this so that you are able to explain your reasons for disagreement in a way that is both logical and respectful of the other person.
This is of vital importance. If group members think that the moment they say something they are verbally attacked they either keep quiet or don’t turn up in the first place. Either way, their views are not heard. And this is of even greater importance on the national stage. A great many people feel that politicians are not listening to them, that their genuine worries and concerns are being either ignored or paid lip service to. Everyone in society needs to feel comfortable expressing an opinion, to not open themselves to a torrent of abuse for doing so, and, at the very least, to having that opinion listened to.
But there’s another side to this coin: that in expressing an opinion everyone needs to accept that their thoughts and ideas may well be challenged; that not everyone is going to agree with them, let alone praise them for a unique insight into the problem at hand. This means that we must all be prepared to be critical of our own position; that we must be able to defend this position with reasoned argument and evidence, not just make a serious of unsupported assertions; that we must learn not to take offence because somebody has the audacity to disagree with us; and most importantly, it means that we must be prepared to change our mind! We need to understand that thoughts and opinions are best formed through critical debate and discussion, not born from our minds fully formed and perfect.
It may seem like a typical reactionary opinion of someone my age, but I really do think that we have lost the skills of public debate and critical thinking – if we had them in the first place. Most of us read or listen to the same news sources that we always have done, take on board the opinions of politician or political parties we have always supported, and automatically defend our opinion if and when challenged. This does not make for a healthy society. Unless we learn the arts of effective public debate and critical thinking I fear that the Brexit scars will take a long time to heal.