Dialogue and the Media

In December 2015, the UK Bahá'í community read with great interest the report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life: Community, Diversity and the Common Good (hereafter referred to as “the report”). Given the rapidly changing landscape of religion and belief in the UK, we feel that the report has contributed significantly to providing a deeper understanding of the role of religion and belief in current day Britain, as well as the implications of the interaction between religion and belief on identity, community, and social cohesion.


Among the various recommendations suggested in the report is that there be a nationwide consultation involving leaders of faith communities and ethical traditions, focusing on the nature of our shared values and principles, culminating in, “a statement of principles and values which foster the common good [that] underpin[s] and guide[s] public life”. The Bahá'í community welcomed this recommendation and over the course of 2016, explored with various individuals and organisations the nature and implications of this recommendation.


Based on these explorations, we offer below some perspectives that may be considered when conceiving of such a consultative process. These relate to the nature of society's dialogical methodology and its underlying conceptual basis, as well as to the role that the media plays as a facilitator of public discourse. We make these recommendations at two levels: at the level of content and at the level of process. Whilst the values that underpin this statement are clearly important, the procedural norms which would shape such an endeavour are also of vital significance. It is to these norms that we would like to direct our comments at this stage.


These are two specific areas of focus that the UK Office of Public Affairs has engaged with actively during the last year: the role of dialogue in contributing to social cohesion, and the role of the media. In December 2016, the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Bahá'í Faith hosted a seminar exploring these areas of focus. Details of the seminar can be found here. Below are some of our reflections that we offer as a contribution to these discourses.


Dialogue

We unequivocally agree that the role of dialogue in contributing to social cohesion is of paramount importance, and that, as the report states, dialogue “is fundamental in every conversation on the religion and belief landscape”. Certainly it is through dialogue that “people of all religions and beliefs feel equally valued, and [are] equally able to contribute to the ongoing national story”, and ultimately to the refinement of core values.


Beyond efforts to enable a greater range of voices to participate in national discourse, what is surely required is a more fundamental examination of the underlying paradigm regarding how individuals, communities and institutions relate to one another. It is in this light that a more constructive and meaningful dialogue can take place.


The dialogical norms associated with much of society are arranged around an interpretive frame which sees society as a social contest. Human nature is seen as fundamentally selfinterested, within a society of scarce resources. Community relations are seen in terms of competing interests that are pursued within structures designed to mitigate overly aggressive aspects of human nature, or what are perceived as imbalances of power. The potential for social cohesion within such a model is limited. Public discourse becomes organised around the approach of adversarial debate, which seeks to facilitate civil disagreement.


There is mounting evidence that suggests that human beings have the capacity to exhibit both altruistic and egoistic behaviour, and that our social environment can influence the extent to which these potential characteristics can be developed. The human world is becoming ever more interconnected, whether economically, socially or technologically.


The assumptions we make about society, communities and the human being shape how we structure society and address the social issues which inevitably arise. Given the social reality of the 21st century, we need to consider how appropriate this prevailing interpretive frame within which we organise societal affairs is, especially when it comes to inter-community relations. Would an alternative model provide a better basis for the development of procedural norms for a nationwide consultation into our common values?


One such alternative model could be to regard society as a human body, and the different communities and individuals within it as limbs or cells of this body. Just like any biological organism the relationship between communities and individuals is not characterised by competition over scarce resources, but by mutual interdependence. Just as when one limb of a body is damaged or one organ is diseased the whole organism suffers, when one social grouping is not able to achieve its potential, the rest of society suffers as a consequence. Such a way of interpreting society can have significant implications for how public discourse is structured.


Instead of adversarial debate mitigating competing interests, alternative approaches, based on an understanding that the best interests of one community will contribute to the best interests of all, can be developed. Such an understanding may present greater potential for social cohesion and the inclusive and comprehensive articulation of the social values of the diverse people of the United Kingdom.


Producing a statement of shared principles and values may also require an examination of other related concepts, such as power and justice.


How does the prevailing view of power as a limited resource, or a zero sum game, that must be competed over, influence the procedural norms of public consultation? How would public dialogue be influenced if we could see power as an output of the limitless creative energies of all human beings; capacities such as altruism, the desire to search for the truth, the ability to understand profound concepts, and the potential to override base instincts? Would this affect how we include different sections of society and how their views are perceived?


How might we understand and pursue justice, when seeking to represent diverse interests, based on an understanding that all human beings, and communities, are ultimately part of one social body; for harm caused to one part of this social body will result in harm being caused to all?


Over the past century and a half, Bahá'í communities around the world have been using a process referred to as consultation as the basis of decision-making, deliberation and dialogue. We would like to share the guiding principles of this form of dialogue which takes place between diverse groups of peoples at various levels of society, and has served to harmonise the efforts and preserve the unity of a global community. Elements of this approach to collective decision-making and community engagement may supplement efforts to foster inclusive, effective and purposeful public discourse. This process may be particularly relevant to the recommendation in the Commission to identify and articulate shared social values.


Consultation is an inclusive process of collective inquiry through which people learn and continuously refine more constructive forms of deliberation. It is an approach to deliberation that seeks to include the participation of all members of society. In the same way that dialogue, according to the report, “is a skill that, like any other, can be taught and learnt”, the process of consultation can be learned and practised by all, provided there is a willingness to strive to adopt certain principles, as highlighted below.


Whilst participants are encouraged to express themselves openly and freely, they are encouraged to do so in a manner that is dignified, courteous and with respect for the views of others. “Detachment from one’s positions and opinions regarding the matter under discussion is imperative - once an idea has been shared, it is no longer associated with the individual who expressed it, but becomes a resource for the group to adopt, modify, or discard.”[1] The recognition that human understanding and knowledge is finite, and is expressed through the prism of individuals’ and communities’ collective experiences and circumstances, allows us to accept that our access to and understanding of ‘truth’ is relative and thus cannot be put forward as an absolute. This, however, is done in a manner which avoids the pitfalls of moral relativism, and rather draws upon universal principles that unite diverse perspectives.


“Great value is placed on the diversity of perspectives and contributions that individuals bring to the discussion. Diversity is harnessed to enrich collective inquiry and deliberation. Actively soliciting views from those traditionally excluded from decision-making not only increases the pool of intellectual resources but also fosters the trust, inclusion and mutual commitment, needed for collective action. On its own, however, a diversity of perspectives does not provide communities with a means to bridge differences or to resolve social tensions. In consultation, the value of diversity is inextricably linked to the goal of unity. This is not an idealised unity, but one that acknowledges differences and strives to transcend them through a process of principled deliberation. It is unity in diversity. While participants have different views or understandings of the issues at hand, they exchange and explore these differences in a unifying manner within the framework of consultation and out of a commitment to the process and principles that guide it.”[2]


How effective and sustainable will any attempt to foster a cohesive society be if we do not reconsider our assumptions about the nature of society, particularly with the increase in global interconnectedness and diversity? Is mere tolerance our ultimate objective and a long lasting condition of social cohesion? Or rather, can we work towards developing a process of collective inquiry and principled deliberation, which ultimately contributes to sustainable social cohesion?


When we consider the necessary diversity of moral perspectives amongst the various communities and existential cultures across the nation, and the inevitable differences of opinion on major ethical issues, it can be tempting to fall into habits and procedural norms associated with the vision of society based on competition. Such a vision will inevitably have profound implications on the process of consultation and the ways in which the diverse views of society are presented. In some respects the procedural norms may be just as important as the actual values which would be presented in a “statement of principles and values which foster the common good”.


Media

These interpretive frames, within which we understand society, have no less an impact within the context of the media.


As the report highlights, the media, in its totality, is both a window and a mirror. Referring to the media of the 19th Century, Bahá'u'lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, says:


“The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of divers peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make 5 them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing.” He goes on to state: “Fair speech and truthfulness, by reason of their lofty rank and position, are regarded as a sun shining above the horizon of knowledge.”


If we come to view media as a facilitator of public discourse, and recognise the imperative role that journalists, editors and diverse sections of the media play in shaping society, we see that media holds a crucial responsibility in facilitating social cohesion and contributing to the common good. The media, thus, needs to turn its lens onto itself and examine the framework within which it operates, critically and consciously scrutinizing its own values, principles and modes of operation.


The “gladiatorial style of encounter” that the report ascribes to various media coverage is reflective of an adversarial frame of reporting that too often has become normative in the public press. Issues are polarised, conflicts are dichotomised, groups are presented as diametrically opposed, and truths and motives are often obscured under the polemical and divisive rhetoric that is presented as ‘fact’ to the public. Thus, a very narrow and restricted view of reality is offered to society; one that neglects the deeper nuances and shades of the issue at hand, as well as dismisses any instances of cooperation, mutual reciprocity or empathy between various parties.


It is clear that there is a critical need for the media to adopt and function within a framework that differs markedly from its present adversarial mode of functioning. We propose that such a frame would value and encourage a diversity of perspectives, recognising diversity as an essential resource in the process of collective enquiry and deliberation. Engagement with a wide range of perspectives, concerns and interests will engender a sense of mutual trust and inclusion, which in turn will foster unity of thought, empathy and tolerance. A key element of this would include widening the scope and depth of religious literacy amongst journalists and sections of the media, thereby enabling greater understanding of diversity to take place.


Effective public dialogue cannot take place within a polemical framework that posits groups or actors against one another. The media, thus, have a key responsibility in ensuring that they delve beyond the surface level when reporting news so as to avoid offering simplistic or reductionist interpretations that contribute to the perpetuation of dangerous stereotypes within the public discourse.


Additionally, the “tone of coverage” to which the report makes reference is of great significance. A non-confrontational tone of expression needs to be developed within the 6 media; one that ensures respect, courtesy, and dignity - one that is fundamental to the development of any successful discourse. Bahá'u'lláh says: “whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence.” We believe that, “speech is a powerful phenomenon. Its freedom is both to be extolled and feared. It calls for an acute exercise of judgment, since both the limitation of speech and the excess of it can lead to dire consequences.”[3]


Finally, and most significantly, we feel that the media cannot function within a moral and ethical void. Public discourse will only benefit “from the conscious articulation and application of relevant underlying principles”[4]. We believe that a moral commitment within the discourse of the media can be invoked when we are engaging with one another at the level of principle. This, in turn, will “make possible the discovery of enduring solutions to the many challenges confronting a rapidly integrating human society”[5].


[1] Transforming Collective Deliberation: Valuing Unity and Justice. The Bahá'í International Community’s statement to the 48th Session of the Commission for Social Development on the priority theme of “Social Integration”. 3 February 2010

[2] Ibid.

[3] Letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá'ís in the United States, 29 December 1988

[4] The Press as a Consultative Forum: A Contribution to Normative Press Theory, Karlberg. Michael. Bahá'í Studies Review, Volume 16. 2010

[5] The Earth Charter/Rio De Janeiro Declaration and the Oneness of Humanity, The Bahá'í International Community. Presented in brief to Working Group III of the Preparatory Committee for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), 4 March 1992.

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