So what is discussion?

In Democracy

Discussion - an easy word to use, but it may be worth examining, particularly in the context of a party political legislature. What we are looking for is a process that enables a group of people to reach a shared conclusion, based on a shared understanding of each others view point. This probably involves more or less formal processes and rules of behaviour to see that the exchange remains focused, and that nobody gets injured.

We inherit structured debate from classical times. This is a somewhat adversarial process where people take turns to present an opinion on the chosen subject, perhaps at great length. The process may, or may not, allow for clarifying questions. The format itself puts a premium on rhetoric and being articulate. Added to that, school and university debating societies encourage participants to speak for or against on any question, whether they agree with the position, or even know anything about the subject. With this background, the process becomes biased towards the articulate speaker who can gain the attention of the audience and build appropriate emotional connections, without any necessary connection to the speaker's real opinion.

To be fair, learning how to speak for a position you don't agree with can be seen as a way of learning how to understand where your opponent is coming from. Indeed, seeing another point of view is valuable, though for two contrasting reasons. One is to pre-empt the opponents argument, and the other is to, perhaps, modify one's own opinion. The school debating society tends to emphasise the first of these, while in more grown up contexts the second one is more likely to lead to a mutually acceptable conclusion. In either case, the thinking needs to be done before the debate. Training people to misrepresent their position empties the debate process of any meaning.

On which note, we can remind ourselves that Parliament is structured around an adversarial debating process. Debates here are a form of entertainment. Speakers 'against' are telling their constituents that they disagree with the motion, but the Government has all the votes so what else could I do? Speakers 'for' sound more as though they are currying favour with the leaders. The leaders are presenting an agreed position, irrespective of their personal feelings. Party politics is always present.

Debates, then, are not discussions. Whether they are Parliamentary side-shows, televised stand-offs, extended newspaper opinion writer debates, or anything else that relies on putting an opinion out there and not listening to the response. Is there an alternative?

Professor of Philosophy, John Rawls, considers that the concept of justice gives us a politics-free way of thinking about society. He recognises that, in a free society, peoples reasonable claims may conflict and some form of ordering of claims is needed. To do this Rawls wants to base an original position on the principle of justice as fairness. To do this he imagines a meeting between parties to work out what is fair and he assumes that "the parties are situated behind a veil of ignorance. They do not know how the various alternatives will affect their own particular case and they are obliged to evaluate principles solely on the basis of general considerations."[^1] Does that help? Well, in the generally free society that Rawls is thinking of, egoism is not going to cut it, simply because egoism leads to the type of clash that requires ordering in the first place, so we have a need to understand the broader picture. Add to that the degree of disinterest implied by the veil of ignorance and we have the basis for discussion. My concern here, though, is that level of disinterest negates all the life experiences of the people concerned, and misses opportunities for evaluating ideology. We cannot properly evaluate alternatives without some real-life input. Universal Credit might be fine from an ideological point of view, but you need someone to say "when I was put on it I nearly starved to death".

We need to take Rawls' rather remote idea and put it into the real, messy, world. In any discussion, the parties must accept that the outcome will not be what they first thought of. Each party must be prepared to listen to what others say, and even to change their mind. Active listening is key here. The discussion depends on everyone being encouraged to have their say, and not on any one person's rhetorical skill. Questions must be asked, and answered. Information must be sought, facts checked. Above all, the parties must be involved. They must be stakeholders in whatever is being discussed. Whether the discussion is about local health services, or national taxation policy, the discussion must include people from all groups that could possibly be affected. Anyone not directly involved simply has nothing to contribute.

[^1:] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Oxford University Press, 1972