Long Talks for Polarised People

Let’s create the expectation that opposing views will speak together – in public, at length, respectfully, and accountably.

Nigel Chapman


Conversations we can all agree on!

Many issues are contested in public life, and some are deeply polarised.  But whatever side of any issue we may find ourselves on, we probably agree about the way that conversations ought to happen.  We see ourselves, and the best of the people on our side, as reasonable and respectful.  We are able to face the truth, and to persuade the great majority of ‘normal people’ about our cause.  We think the problem lies with our opponents, who cannot speak so civilly and honestly, but only make their case by deflecting or avoiding our important questions.  And they think the same way, but about us.  So shouldn’t we be open to speaking together in public, if we can just be persuaded that the other side will be held to the old-fashioned standards of reason and decency that we ourselves espouse?

in public at length respectfully accountably

The benefits of speaking in this way are obvious to anyone who has seen it done.  Hearing different sides talking together about big issues can help us all to understand them better.  Talking back and forth corrects misunderstandings quickly – and more so in public.  It puts a human face on people we might otherwise dismiss as enemies or problems.  At the same time, it subjects their ideas to all the scrutiny their opponents can muster.  Speaking at length can cover issues thoroughly, rather than in a piecemeal, one-sided, occasional, or purely partisan manner, more like a drive-by-shooting than a conversation.

While in-person debates are typically limited to two hours and two sides, debates in print have more flexibility in length and format.  Third-party commentators can contribute, as it were, from the sidelines, offering expertise and giving a voice to minority views.  While conflicted issues can be fractious, debates can set terms of discussion that require courtesy.  Moderators or adjudicators can be chosen who are agreed by both sides to be capable of objectivity.  They can keep the talks rational and stop anybody deflecting questions or talking over others.  Openly rational and respectful conversations undermine the kinds of deception and aggression that polarisation relies upon.

In this article I suggest how a series of long talks might be run, and that this is a format especially suited to a mostly-online newspaper with a respected editorial staff – the sort of papers and magazines that already produce ‘Long Reads’ for in-depth writing on important issues.  ‘Long Talks’ could rebuild norms of reason and civility, and the expectation that discussions in the public square should serve the common good.  If talks like these were published online they could become a permanent public resource and, in themselves, a kind of common ground.  A public exposed to their benefits will be increasingly critical of merely partisan advocacy, and conscious of being ill-served by it.


Who would participate?

In a discussion of this sort two writers argue the major sides of some significant issue.  There will be four main roles in the discussion:

An Editor.  They organise the series; find representative participants; host a meeting or dinner at which the participants get to know each other before the discussion begins; reject any submissions not meeting the agreed terms of discussion; host a second meeting or dinner at the end; and select reader correspondence to publish.
Writers (2).  They argue a perspective and respond to opposing views.  It must be clear that they are among the best possible respresentatives of a socially significant perspective.  More than two sides could be accommodated if they each have comparable social standing, but a majority of questions reduce to two leading alternatives.  A single ‘writer’ could be a team, which might have the benefit of pairing subject matter experts with effective popular communicators, and might also insure the series against anyone falling ill.
Commentators (3–5).  They may offer short responses to each article, providing either subject matter expertise or a minority perspective, and including questions to the writers.  Perspectives with more social standing could be given higher word limits for replying.
Adjudicators (3).  These are knowledgeable and respected figures who will judge whether expertise was represented fairly, whether points were raised without being adequately argued, and whether any points argued were ignored by the other side.  One is nominated by each speaker, and another, if needed, by the editor.  All participants have to agree that they are knowedgeable, and can be trusted to act impartially as adjudicators.

The editor will arrange the cast of participants, and the writers will agree to the opponents, commentators, and adjudicators at the start.  A prior announcement of upcoming series’ might lead to helpful nominations of participants.


What kind of articles would be produced?

A discussion series will contain an introduction by the editor, (optionally) an orientation by the adjudicators, opening statements, articles, responses, closing statements, reflections from participants, correspondence from the public, and a summary review by the adjudicators.

Introduction.  The editor will introduce the question, the major perspectives, and, briefly, the speakers and commentators who will represent them.  They will present a summary table of what each party is actually saying, based on similar tables filled out by the writers.  (2,000 words)
A is saying… B is saying… We are both saying…
A is not saying… B is not saying… Neither of us are saying…
Orientation.  If there’s much to explain at the outset, the adjudicators may supply an historical or conceptual introduction, or a glossary, so the writer who speaks first is not disadvantaged by having to explain fundamentals to readers.

From this point on a fairly normal debate structure will follow:

Opening Statements.  Each writer will make an opening statement (2,000 words) with the suggested outline:
  1. Some kind of humorous introductory remarks, e.g. a joke we tell about the people on our own side.
  2. Who I am, who I represent, and where I stand among the views on my side; perhaps also how I came to the position I now hold.
  3. The best article-length and book-length treatments of my position.  (One each; recommendations specific to particular areas may be added in those articles.)
  4. I will argue and defend these points in my articles…
  5. But will not argue or defend these other points…
  6. I agree to the terms of discussion, and the selected commentators and adjudictators.
  7. Why I’m looking forward to this discussion.
Articles (3).  Each writer will have three articles of 2,000 words to argue their claims.  If it would better suit the structure of the material, 500 words might be added to one article at the expense of another.  These will be submitted to the editor before the series begins, who will have already confirmed that they meet the terms of discussion.  All participants receive these, in confidence, at the start of the series.
Responses (3).  A week after each article appears, a response from the other writer will appear (2,000 words), and from any commentators who wish to reply (up to 600 words, being collated into a single article).
Closing statements.  At the end of the series, each party may reply to all responses (2,000 words).  They may not make substantial new arguments here, as there will be no reply to them.

For the body of the debate, notes may be added at the end of any piece by the adjudicators, and if time allows, the writer may adjust their article to take account of these.  These notes will be restricted to fact checks, or to overseeing the debate itself, such as pointing when the other side’s arguments have not been addressed.  At the end of the series there will be some concluding articles:

Reflections.  All participants may reflect at the end about their experience of this discussion, and how they think public discussion of this issue can be improved.  (Up to 500 words each).
Correspondence.  The series editor may summarise any correspondence received from the public that has not already been addressed by the responses (2,000 words).
Adjudication.  The adjudicators will summarise the points made, whether they thought these were established or refuted (2,000 words), and anything they think may need clarification.


What discussion standards should apply?

Some standards for participation will be needed; to be judged by the adjudicators.  At minimum, we should require:

  • Summarise in one paragraph, at the start, the claims you intend to argue in each article, or the arguments to which you are replying.
  • The arguments of the opponent may be attacked, but not the opponent themselves.
  • Write clearly, for a reading age of sixteen, by any widely-used readability metric.
  • Introduce and summarise your evidence conversationally.  Do not use footnotes.
  • Prove beyond reasonable doubt any claim you choose to argue, or leave it out.  Especially, you must justify any generalisations about your opponents.


What topics might be covered?

A topic should be a public controversy that resolves to two or three major points of view, with other positions being represented from the sidelines by commentators.  It should be expected that hearing opposing views might improve public understanding and empathy on this issue.  (The examples I offer here are specific to Australia.)

  • Is Australian multiculturalism a success or a problem?
  • Should Australians be economically right-wing or left-wing?
  • Should Australians be socially progressive or conservative?
  • Should Australians be populist or elitist?
  • Is Australia still racist?  (or: sexist?)
  • Should there be reparations for British colonisation?
  • Is government in Australia sufficiently resistant to corruption?
  • Will our children have better lives than we do?
  • Does the news media serve the interests of the Australian people?
  • Is Australia doing enough to preserve the natural environment?
  • Are transmen men, and transwomen women?
  • Should education mainly prepare people for work?
  • Is free speech threatened in Australia?
  • Is Australia a good global citizen?  (or: Are we good ancestors?)


How might a discussion be organised?

The discussion might proceed as follows.  A six week structure would allow for at least seven quite substantial discussions over the course of a year.  This assumes two writers, and a normal unit length of 2,000 words, and produces 40,000 words of discussion in total.

Week 1.  (~6,000 words)
Orientation, if needed
Opening Statements
Week 2.  (4,000 words – perhaps allow article A to be longer than the others?)
First Articles
Week 3.  (~8,000 words)
Responses to First Articles by writers and commentators
Second Articles
Week 4.  (~8,000 words)
Responses to Second Articles by writers and commentators
Third Articles
Week 5.  (~8,000 words)
Responses to Third Articles by writers and commentators
Closing statements
Week 6.  (~6,000 words)
Reflections by participants


Is anybody doing this already?

I’m not aware of any exact precedent for this kind of discussion.  If we compare it to current formats, we see a possible gap in the market, which online news publishing could fill.

Opinion writers.  Papers and websites often have a mix of left/right commentators, but their opinion pieces are necessarily short and unsystematic, so they often talk past each other, or inhabit a ‘bubble’ in which the other side has no voice.  Even book reviews don’t necessarily respond to the best form of opposing view, and of course are not systematic.  Having an editor find and screen participants, and having participants agree to their opponents, commentators, and adjudicators – and to terms of discussion – should create an expectation of respect and substance.
Expert media.  A website like The Conversation seeks to only offer expert opinion in relatively short articles.  This has the benefit of quality assurance, but career concerns in institutional settings would likely prevent them running debates.
Panel shows.  Short-form television or similar media gives a voice, at least briefly, to two major perspectives on an issue, but seldom allows time to set issues in context, present substantial evidence, or mount a non-trivial argument – and many voices have to be excluded for reasons of time and practicality.
Video debates.  Events that follow normal debating conventions are perhaps the best parallel to a series like this; they can have reputable and representative voices, can be quite substantial if they run for an hour or more.  Debates by the Long Now Foundation (UK) have employed the delightful rule that speakers must summarise the previous speaker’s argument to their satisfaction before any rebuttal.  However, video debates tend toward specialist topics, lack third-party critiques, still can’t cover many topics well, and aren’t usually transcribed.
Debate-format books.  Zondervan Counterpoints books are an example of long arguments with extended replies between 3–5 major sides in disputed matters, in that case in Christian theology.  But they are entire books, with up to 15,000 words for each major argument, and aren’t usually available online.