How to engage in productive public discourse?

Most of this post has been sparked from the Q and A pro­gram on Monday night on the ABC; so while this post should make sense even if you haven’t seen the pro­gram, it will prob­a­bly make more sense after watch­ing it or read­ing the tran­script. You can find that here:

After the pro­gram John Dickson on his Facebook wall asked the ques­tion on his wall ( about whether there are con­struc­tive meth­ods of dis­cussing con­flict­ing truth-claims (my para­phrase). The part of the show that sparked this off was the per­cep­tion that John Stackouse,  speak­ing rel­a­tive­ly objec­tive­ly on the his­to­ry and ide­ol­o­gy of Islam was being ‘judge­men­tal’ as he was express­ing views, and arguably accu­rate ones, that con­tra­dict­ed anoth­er panellist’s own con­cep­tion of the same issue. Unfortunately the com­ments on John’s post have diverged off on a tan­gent, and haven’t real­ly addressed the ques­tion of pub­lic dis­course.

When dis­cussing the­o­ries or data, it is rel­a­tive­ly easy to find sta­ble and con­sis­tent bases for dis­course on the mat­ter. Maths for exam­ple has a fair­ly long and stan­dard ‘lan­guage’ and agreed set of norms. Such that when one the­o­ry is set against anoth­er, the play­ing field is set and com­par­isons are able to be made. However, in more sub­jec­tive envi­ron­ments the dis­course is far from clear, for exam­ple indi­vid­ual pref­er­ences: Why is Coffee A bet­ter than Coffee B in a blind tast­ing? The lev­el of pub­lic dis­course swings wild­ly between those two extremes, although I think often attempts are being made to dis­cuss con­cepts and ideas that are nat­u­ral­ly towards the ‘objec­tive truth-claim’ end of the spec­trum, but using ide­ol­o­gy from the ‘sub­jec­tive per­cep­tion claim’ end of the spec­trum.

As such this issue of pro­duc­tive pub­lic dis­course has been bug­ging me for a while, as I think it appears to be stem­ming from the recent head­long col­li­sion in the pub­lic sphere between vari­ants of post-mod­ern phi­los­o­phy and the bur­geon­ing use of sci­en­tif­ic method in all spheres of life. I won­der if a lot of the inter­face of a ratio­nal mod­ernistic ‘bur­den of proof’ approach with nar­ra­tive phi­los­o­phy, and prob­a­bly inter­nal psy­che nar­ra­tives, has giv­en us a hyper­bol­ic expres­sion of Lyotard’s ear­ly post-mod­ern nar­ra­tive phi­los­o­phy. 2  However, I don’t think that either Lyotard or Derrida envis­aged mod­ernistic sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly based nar­ra­tives as being shoe-horned into place for sup­port­ing truth claims.

I think from this our soci­ety has embraced a form of post-mod­ernism in an anti­thet­i­cal type of Orwellian-dou­ble­think. No longer say­ing ‘your truth offends me’, but rather a case of ‘a dif­fer­ent truth-claim to mine offends,’ and ‘your dif­fer­ent truth-claim to theirs offends me’. The proof of accu­ra­cy and jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is no longer con­sid­ered exter­nal but rather inter­nal. This has impacts on all spheres of life, not only reli­gious dis­course, but legal, polit­i­cal, eth­i­cal and even start­ing to have inroads into sci­en­tif­ic dis­course. (cf Sweet, 1998 Discourse and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of reli­gious truth; Habermas 1996 Between facts and norms; Patterson, 1996 Law and Truth). Take for exam­ple the cur­rent debate sur­round­ing the 18C vil­i­fi­ca­tion laws. While it was arguably nev­er over­ly social­ly accept­able to be a big­ot, it is no longer social­ly accept­able in many spheres to even enter­tain the idea that there are unsi­lenced big­ot­ed peo­ple out there. Furthermore, the push towards leg­is­la­tion of ‘big­otry’ is arguably a case for mak­ing what has been con­sid­ered inter­nal­ly sub­jec­tive in cul­tur­al meta-nar­ra­tives, exter­nal­ly objec­tive in the rule of law.

It seems that no longer is it a case of ‘I am right, and you aren’t’ but more along the lines of ‘I am inter­nal­ly jus­ti­fied, and your own inter­nal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is worth less than mine’

So how do we end up doing pub­lic dis­course over major issues in this envi­ron­ment? Is it even pos­si­ble to con­duct pro­duc­tive dis­course in an envi­ron­ment where the mere expres­sion of anoth­er sub­jec­tive opin­ion caus­es ‘dis­gust’? Has any­one con­duct­ed stud­ies in dis­course analy­sis in this sphere? How about stud­ies in oth­er fields I’m less famil­iar with? Would love to hear about it in the com­ments.


About Chris