The year 2016 will be remembered for many things, one of which was the need to reconsider the prevalent modes of public discourse within society. It is fitting then that as the year came to a close some 50 participants from a range of backgrounds and organisations came together to explore how the prevailing mode of adversarial debate can affect our society, why our society has adopted this model, and how alternatives can be identified.
Participants represented members of parliament, civil society and community engagement organisations, faith and inter-faith bodies, the media and broadcast journalism, and academia. Attendees included, amongst others, individuals from 3 Faiths Forum, the British Humanist Association, Faith Action, the Interfaith Network of the UK, the Near Neighbours Project, RAND, St Ethelburgas Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, SOAS, and various faith communities.
Louise Ellman MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Bahá'í Faith, opened the seminar by remarking on the timeliness and importance of the topic. She then introduced the panel of speakers, who each shared perspectives on the role of dialogue in promoting social cohesion.
Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government
Lord Bourne described how dialogue has been humanity's means of resolving differences since the dawn of time and that it is vital for creating strong and cohesive communities. He reminded participants that effective dialogue must result in collective action in the pursuit of mutual interests. Lord Bourne reiterated the government’s vision and commitment to building strong and peaceful communities that can stand together against the forces of division.
Dr Justine Huxley
Director of St Ethelburgas Centre for Reconciliation and Peace
Dr Justine Huxley highlighted that the deep sense of unrest, prevalent in today's society, stems from a broken system. In order for dialogue to be more productive there is a need to move away from a binary framework of addressing issues and from thinking in terms of competition to thinking along the lines of cooperation. Constructive dialogue represents such a movement. Dr Huxley suggested that a culture of dialogue needs to be embedded into the culture of all aspects of life, from economics or international relations to the justice system. When confronted with a dualistic choice, one can seek to re-frame the question.
Dr Huxley also highlighted the importance of engaging with people's stories – where they are coming from and why they care about certain issues. This can change a situation of suspicion to one of empathy.
Dr Michael Karlberg
Professor at Western Washington University and Representative of the Bahá'í Community
Dr Michael Karlberg started by asking what social cohesion means to our society. Within commonly held conceptions of this normative concept there are assumptions and values. He described these frameworks as interpretive frames; a prevailing interpretive framework which he referred to as the social contest framework. The assumptions in this framework, he highlighted, are of an egoistic human nature and a conception of society as characterised by competition over scarce resources. Dr Karlberg then described an alternative interpretive
frame, which he referred to as the social body frame. This frame is built upon the assumption that human nature has the potential to be both altruistic and egoistic, and that the altruistic nature can be cultivated through education. Society is conceived as one of mutual interdependence; what benefits one segment of society benefits all and harm to one element of the social body results in harm being caused to all.
These interpretive frames have profound impacts on policy and practice. Within the social contest frame the aim of social cohesion is to tolerate difference. Public discourse is best mediated by civil disagreement and results in the practice of adversarial debate. This leads to a very weak level of social cohesion, one in which divergent agendas are pursued within structures which attempt to mitigate the aggressive aspects of human nature.
The social body frame would promote an alternative mode of public discourse, referred to as principled deliberation. The objective of social cohesion in this frame is the wellbeing of all of society. Principled deliberation seeks to harness moral truths, such as a recognition of the
inherent dignity of every human being and the need for each individual to have the opportunity to develop their potential. Principled deliberation elevates public discourse to the level of these principles, actively seeks to involve marginalised voices and is organised around the principle of justice.
Dr Karlberg also addressed the effects of the media and questioned the ability of commercially driven media in prioritising social cohesion. Without re-examining the priorities of the media and the assumptions of the social contest frame within this context, the media will only exacerbate conflict.
He soberly called upon participants to reflect upon how helpful has this social contest interpretive framework been and whether in the 21st century it can meet the needs of society.
Broadcast Journalist, BBC
Karnegie Sharp shared concerns regarding the effects the media can have upon social cohesion and referred to a positive direction the media can take to become an instrument of social cohesion. Much of what people see in the news is negative and there are worrying trends of reporting in such a way as to cause or magnify divisions. Such sensationalist reporting, unfortunately, is what tends to sell.
She shared an approach to reporting on events called 'solutions based journalism', which seeks to provide consumers of media with the information they need to respond to issues and contribute towards social cohesion, as well as implying the social responsibility that is placed on the journalist.
The media has the potential to bring together communities by providing a platform for all groups within a society to have a voice and contribute towards the national discourse. By ensuring a diversity of representation, the media can become a powerful force contributing
towards social cohesion.
Professor Martyn Barrett
Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Surrey
Professor Martyn Barrett provided participants with powerful empirical justification of the need for greater interaction among communities within diverse societies. He referred to the Contact Hypothesis which, supported by a landmark paper by Pettigrew and Tropp (2006) reviewing empirical evidence from 515 different empirical studies, proposes that hostility, intolerance and prejudice between members of different groups can be reduced by bringing individuals into contact with one another. In order for such contact to most effectively overcome prejudice, four conditions should ideally be met:
The contact needs to take place between people who perceive themselves to be of roughly equal social status;
The contact should be sufficiently prolonged and close that it has the potential to allow meaningful relationships or friendships to develop between the participants;
The contact should involve joint activities that are aimed at achieving common goals – in other words, it should involve cooperation rather than competition between the individuals;
The contact should be backed by an explicit framework of support by those in authority or by social institutions.
Professor Barrett highlighted the approach of interculturalism, which builds upon the policies of multiculturalism by emphasising intercultural dialogue and providing a framework in which the capacities required to engage in effective intercultural dialogue can be developed and opportunities provided for such dialogue to occur. Professor Barrett identified these key competencies – a range of skills, values, attitudes, knowledge and understanding – which he referred to as democratic competencies. Professor Barrett referred to a flagship project for the Council of Europe called “Competencies for Democratic Culture (CDC)” that he is leading which is developing detailed educational proposals to equip young people to engage in intercultural dialogue. The term ‘democratic culture’ is used in the title of the project to emphasise the fact that, while democracy cannot exist without democratic institutions, these institutions cannot work in practice unless citizens themselves hold democratic values, attitudes and practices. Professor Barrett claimed that in culturally diverse societies, democratic culture requires intercultural dialogue.
Participants then engaged with the panellists in a Q&A session in which some interesting questions and insights emerged including:
If people are “hard wired” to find negative or violent news appealing, this doesn’t mean that as a society we need to pander to these appetites. Instead this can be an argument for self restraint and discipline to overcome them.
There is a need for intercultural education throughout life and the approaches of such education need to become suffused throughout society and not just limited to formal education. The family is an important arena in which this type education needs to occur.
There was recognition of a need for dialogue involving a range of views towards democracy and how it has benefitted in the 20th century, yet exploring the needs of the 21st century.
Participants then divided into four workshop groups, facilitated by individuals from a range of organisations. Each group explored a set of questions intended to identify ways in which, within a specific field, progress can be made, drawing upon the experiences and expertise of all participants. Some of the questions explored by the groups included:
What is the role of the media in contributing to social cohesion and the common good?
How can the consumer of media avoid reinforcing echo chambers that merely confirm their own conceptual frameworks?
Can advertise-financed media lead to the creation and dissemination of 'truth' in such a way that it promotes social cohesion? Or is it a hindrance to this process?
How can we foster meaningful dialogue so that diverse perspectives are understood as complementary sources of insight and resources for decision-making?
How can we do this while avoiding the problem of extreme relativism, or the assumption that every moral or empirical truth-claim is valid?
How can we avoid reducing public discourse to an arena of interest-group competition, and focus instead on the wellbeing of the entire social body?
Inclusion and Society
How can we ensure that historically, as well as contemporary, marginalized groups have access to the public sphere and can thereby become full participants in public discourse?
How can we ensure their voices are welcome, actively solicited, and represented fairly?
Should all parties be heard at the table? How do we engage with individuals who express extreme views or attitudes that may appear harmful?
What approaches to education would enable individuals to become capable of constructive and principled deliberation? How could these approaches continue to evolve throughout one's life and beyond the formal educational system?
What values or principles should be taught in schools to encourage meaningful dialogue?
What capacities will we need to develop at the level of individuals, organizations and institutions, as well as entire communities, in order to foster inclusive and effective dialogue?
The seminar concluded with The Rt Hon Alistair Carmichael MP, Treasurer of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Baha'i Faith, offering encouraging closing words to those present, urging them to continue to question the nature of our public dialogue, and to widen the circle of those involved in this conversation.
The seminar created a space where like-minded individuals and organizations were able to come together to explore the nature of public dialogue and to deliberate upon questions that shape these modes of discourse. There are many questions that will require ongoing consideration and will need to involve an ever-wider circle of voices. As we go forward, we intend to continue these conversations in a series of smaller seminars where we can further explore questions such as: How can the principle of justice guide our approach to public
discourse? How can the media act as a facilitator of public discourse? How can we avoid reducing public discourse to an arena of interest-group competition, and focus instead on the wellbeing of the entire social body? It is envisaged that in the coming year, opportunities and spaces will be created for such questions to be explored, and for insights gained to be applied and to be put into practice in various settings.