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