Terence Blacker: Less opinion, more debate, please

Open-mindedness has become confused with indecisiveness

Share
Related Topics

Imagine that, instead of being an article in a newspaper, these words were part of an opinionated dinner-party conversation. Across the table is someone presenting a controversial and contrarian view – Melanie Phillips, perhaps, or Ken Livingstone.

The question is this. Would you enjoy becoming involved in the discussion as it warmed up, or would you be gripped by a sense of social unease and wish you had stayed home to watch TV?

For many English people, ideas are fine in their place – in a book or a newspaper, on stage, on the radio – but do not belong in polite society. "There is a coldness in English social life," the populist philosopher Alain de Botton has recently complained. "No one reveals anything, says anything that is in any way naked, vulnerable, interesting, honest."

It is a rather surprisingly sweeping statement from a man of ideas and, at first glance, looks little more than a re-tread of that old cliché of social history, the uptightness of the English. Yet de Botton is pointing up something true and paradoxical. In an age which prides itself on its openness, we are actually becoming less adept at serious discussion – or at least less able to disagree in an interesting way – than once we were.

Yet we are supposed to be rather good at nakedness and honesty these days. At the slightest excuse, people in public life will strip down at least to their emotional underwear. A whole industry, damply heaving with emotion, has been constructed around vulnerability. The success of debating societies like Intelligence Squared suggests there is even a certain hunger for seriousness among those dissatisfied by the thin gruel offered by the traditional media. Given the enthusiasm with which thousands of people blog their views across the internet, it would seem we are living through a golden age of opinion.

Opinion, though, is different from debate; indeed, it is sometimes its polar opposite. Somewhere along the line, an intellectual flexibility, a curiosity about the views of those who disagree with us, has been lost. Open-mindedness has become confused with indecisiveness. For any point of view now to be taken seriously, it needs to represent a hard, straight line of unquestionable conviction. Complexity has become suspect.

It is the age of the shout. Public debate has become confrontational rather than exploratory, and that approach to discussion – listening only to the other side in order to find something to refute – has spilt into everyday life. In this context, it is unsurprising that people like to shelter behind small talk: better the conversational coldness to which de Botton refers than the pointless heat of a row.

It may be that a class or generational element is at work here – the middle-class and middle-aged tend to be wary of nakedness – but I suspect the decline in open-minded debate is part of a wider, more alarming picture.

Those in public and in private life tend to share one very modern concern. They want to know what side they are on – behind which solid block of beliefs they are hunkering down.

Eager to find others who hold identical opinions, they read and listen to only those with whom they are in agreement. They avoid becoming contaminated by views which risk changing their mind.

terblacker@aol.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron visiting a primary school last year  

The only choice in schools is between the one you want and the ones you don’t

Jane Merrick
Zoë Ball says having her two children was the best thing ever to happen to her  

Start a family – you’ll never have to go out again

John Mullin
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn