should know that it was neither Jacob Bronowski nor A J Ayer who said 'It depends what you mean by…' but C E M Joad – the Brains Trust's resident philosopher. This programme was broadcast on the BBC Home Service during the second world war, long before the Third Programme began. I remember listening in when about 11 years old in 1944. Joad became professor of psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London, where I studied, from 1950-57. The twin studies for which he was best known were eventually discredited.
B L Cohen
Thank you to Gerry Hassan for his article on silences. I think he's the only political commentator who talks about these issues. He asked for thoughts from readers about some of the steps we could take to get a better quality of public debate. I have been thinking about this for some time. I don't have any answers, but here is my contribution:
I was, 35-odd years ago, a shop steward. This was a terrific training in many respects, including the following two. Firstly, debate was open and it was not for faint hearts, as it was very robust. If you argued a particular point of view, you had to listen very carefully to those who disagreed with you because, if you didn't, someone would get to their feet and simply demolish your arguments until they lay like rubble at your feet. Not a bad thing! It forced you to re-think. If you proposed a course of action, you had to be very clear what support you had, how well-researched your proposal was, how realistic its aims, and what strategies you had in mind to achieve your goals.
Secondly, you had to listen very hard to your members. They were, mostly, not interested in matters of policy or wider politics. They had a problem and they wanted to know what you were going to do about it. I developed a lot of very useful listening skills here – teasing out what was true and what wasn't, clarifying what the members really wanted (often they had no idea – 'something should be done!'), working out how much effort they were prepared to put in to get what they wanted, and so on.
Being a shop steward was a terrific honour, and a sometimes terrifying responsibility. I am tremendously nostalgic for those days, but I think they have gone for good. There are no forums that I know of where people can speak their minds forcibly in an effort to persuade, without their associates, or adversaries, taking it personally. The greatest thing about it was that you had to understand other people – you had next to no power and goals could be achieved only by argument and persuasion.
So how could we better hear the silences, involve the people who are normally missing, and listen and reflect as well as speak?
I think such a forum would have to be in real life, not online. It should not involve a panel (or if so, only to kick things off) but a set-up that treats everyone present, not as part of a side or teams or tribe, but as a member of the same community. It should be chaired, but the chairperson's job should be clear at the start – to allow people to express their views, even where these views are uncomfortable, but also to help people to listen to these views without discarding them out of hand. That requires from the chairperson a lot of skill and, dare I say it, authority or respect, not easy things to acquire or demonstrate.
The chair-person would also have to be prepared to say: 'There's an issue here which everyone knows exists but nobody so far has been prepared to articulate', which is even harder, because people don't like feeling uncomfortable, embarrassed or threatened. All this would have to be built up over time, because meetings would have to win a reputation as places where your view would be heard and listened to and where you would be treated with respect. And why not a few silences if things are getting a bit heated, where the chairperson says: 'As there is so much anger at the moment, let's have 30 seconds in which people reflect on their views and consider whether they could get their point over in a less abrasive manner'.
I also think how we frame things at the start of a meeting can have a positive or negative effect that is hard to shake off. For example, if the chairperson says initially: 'We're here to hear about the problems of airbnb lets and how we can put a stop to them', the negative atmosphere is already set, whereas if the chair-person says "We're here to discuss Airbnb lets, to consider how legitimate they are, to look at their positive and negative effects, and to see if we can come to a view that will satisfy us all', you're much likelier to get an open and reasoned debate.
A last observation on silence: is silence not the norm these days? Look at people on the bus, or look even at a family out in a restaurant for a meal. They're all on their phones. What chance of open discussions with people you don't know if even families don't talk to each other?
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