Many challenging conversations are being held at all levels of society, which are of great significance to our shared future. These conversations include, but are in no way limited to, the nature of our shared national values, social cohesion, the equality of women and men, the role religion plays in public life, migration, freedom of speech, freedom of religion or belief, and the economy.
In order for our society to progress, it is clear that all who are concerned need to be enabled to participate fully in these discussions. Could it be imagined that issues of such universal significance could be encompassed by only one worldview, set of values or perspective? Within each of these national discourses there are many voices, with seemingly conflicting interests, often very polarised. Certain voices tend to dominate conversations while other voices become marginalised. Could it be the nature of contemporary public discourse itself that is contributing to the various divisions within society? Could other ways of critically examining different ideas in the public sphere be more constructive? If so what could they look like? How can different opinions be presented and explored in a manner that does not assume conflict? Should all views be given equal access to participation?
Often discussion fora in which these contentious issues are addressed assume the form of oppositional debates. Different points of view are presumed to be in conflict. The objective in such spaces is not necessarily the investigation of truth, but rather the ascendancy of one point of view over another. Consensus among those participating is not generally even considered a possibility, much less a desired outcome. This can lead to an oversimplification of the truth or a false choice between a binary set of options.
Whether it be polemical televised debates, oppositional articles in the press, factionalized social media “echo chambers”, or increasingly segregated neighbourhoods and schools, few spaces seem to exist where we can understand and interact constructively with diverse worldviews, political outlooks or life experiences other than our own. Furthermore, contemporary media and contemporary culture often reinforce each other in these ways, like a feedback loop – especially at the national level.
Against this backdrop of national opposition and debate, some local communities are also highly fragmented, with different groups isolated from one another, often along the lines of religion, race, or economic standing. Notwithstanding the risk of such conditions fostering prejudice or extremism among a negligible few, the broader problem of estrangement between different groups or communities is often neglected.
If the nature of the society we wish to build and preserve is one characterised by respect and amity among all of its citizens, including those who differ in various ways, how do we create a culture that values these differences without glorifying them or reducing people to caricatures? How do we create spaces for people, who may not agree with one another, to interact and work constructively together for the common good? How can the collective pursuit of truth be encouraged as the objective of public discussion?
What is the central purpose of public dialogue? Is it to reach a compromise, or is there a deeper pursuit of truth? If the pursuit of truth is a central purpose of public dialogue, what do we imagine the form of such dialogue to be? What would characterise the tone of participants’ contributions? Would the acquisition of qualities such as courtesy, kindness, or detachment from one’s own preconceived views become a significant concern? How can they be fostered? What role should the institutions of society play in encouraging the moderation of speech? What role does education play?
In our efforts to be as inclusive as possible, how can we avoid the pitfalls of extreme relativism, suggesting that all views, no matter how dangerous, are equally valid? How can we still recognise the noble potential of the individuals whose views may be considered invalid? What implications does this have for the way in which we engage with them?
Recent events have highlighted a growing and ever more urgent need for more effective and inclusive modes of dialogue.