Long ago, when I was at school, we were told the first part of a story and asked to suggest an ending. Here is the first part of a story.
In a land far away life was very simple. There were two groups, one called Right and the other called Wrong. Except it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Because Wrong thought Right should be called Wicked and Stupid, and Right thought Wrong should be called Stupid and Wicked. So it was really quite confusing.
Whenever an issue arose, the people gathered.
They shouted Right!
They shouted Wrong!
They shouted Stupid!
And they shouted Wicked!
And nobody was quite sure who was what. Everyone believed that they were Right, and other people were Wrong. And quite possibly other people were Stupid and Wicked, or perhaps they were Wicked and Stupid. It was often hard to tell.
And then someone invented something called social media.
Now, class, how does this story end? We all like stories to have a happy ending but I struggle to see how this one could.
It is very hard, perhaps increasingly hard, to change the tone of debate, but stifling debate is not the answer – it is fundamental to competent government to have effective opposition, robust scrutiny and a free press.
It is also hard to get away from the fact that an important part of standing for election is winning (which inevitably means that somebody has to lose). And one way to win is to convince the electorate that your proposals are right (and by extension the other person’s are wrong).
But if all we have is the binary choice between winning and losing, and right and wrong, does that really reflect the diversity of the world in which we live? Understanding the areas of disagreement and divergence, and the reasons for these, often provides very useful insights, and in my experience some discussions about contested areas result in the final proposal being better than the original. And understanding the areas of agreement or overlap when considering proposals – whether in manifestos, legislative programmes, policy options, or delivery plans – sometimes leads to the conclusion that the real divergence is not about what should be achieved, but how. That in itself is useful information, not least in that it provides some common ground for a conversation.
There is also the risk that if every decision is binary, polarisation is very likely to increase – and the safe space in which it is possible to raise concerns or examine competing arguments is likely to shrink until it is invisible.
But nor can we afford to over-correct to a position where it’s not acceptable, or impossible, to describe something as wrong: some things are indeed wrong; indeed, some are wicked. Some issues are so important that forensic examination and robust challenge of proposals is not only desirable, but essential. Scrutiny of public bodies, public expenditure and public officials is a core component of accountability. But disagreeing with my point of view doesn’t necessarily make you wrong, and it certainly doesn’t make you wicked.
And if debate is to be productive, facts matter, accuracy matters, and evidence matters. This risks sounding naïve, given that too much of what passes for debate is focused on diminishing the standing of the individual or group regarded as the opposition, or worse still, characterised as the enemy. But I fear a greater risk than being thought naïve, and that is the risk that more and more issues are decided on the basis of the power and reach of one’s voice, and fewer and fewer on the basis of the strength and validity of the argument.
The way we react to debate matters too. The prospect of individuals or groups changing their position on an issue is diminished if every movement is followed by assertions that they have been “forced” to change their minds, or humiliated, when in fact they have responded to new information, or changed their minds in response to a better understanding of the prevailing context. It is also possible to thank someone for listening carefully to arguments, and responding thoughtfully to what they have heard, and if someone gets something wrong and later corrects it, there is an important choice between amplifying the mistake and recognising that it takes courage to own up to making one.
But returning to our original story – can there be a happy ending?
The problem with getting to a happy ending is that somebody would need to change. And one other thing I know about the land far away is that not only is it very hard to distinguish between between Right and Wrong, but almost everyone has the same name – and their name is Somebody Else. And despite the citizenry’s largely adversarial approach to everything from climate change to what to have for lunch, there was very strong support for the proposition that Somebody Else had to change. As ever there were some outliers: a small group composed of individuals who were clear that Everybody Else had to change; and another group who just enjoyed being rude. So despite the consensus, nothing much changed.
Is there any cause for hope, or are we on an endless slide into an endless futile battle? I believe there is some cause for hope: I detect a sense that the current quality of debate risks becoming debased, if it has not become so already, and I detect a general distaste for personal attacks.
Of course, it could be argued that anything less than a robust contribution will be perceived as ineffective, and in any case there is no point in changing unless everyone does it. A lesson I learned from someone whose judgement I trust was this: people should not mistake decency for weakness. And one of the main lessons I learned about improvement is deceptively simple: start where you are, and do what you can.
Is it worth taking the risk, and taking it now? Even if it’s only you and me?
Professor Paul Gray is a former Chief Executive of NHS Scotland and Director General for Health and Social Care at the Scottish Government