Space for respectful, reasoned public discussion has shrivelled

Rite&Reason: Too many of us regard our viewpoint as a given and all else as worthy of ridicule

A little over 30 years ago, the American academic Daniel C Hallin wrote a book on media coverage of the Vietnam War, The Uncensored War. Although much of what Hallin had to say now belongs firmly in the area of media history, one hypothesis that he posits has maintained its resonance through the intervening decades, and for a wider application than the field of journalism.

This is a theory now known as “Hallin’s Spheres”.

Hallin suggested that the world of public discourse (and media discussion on public events in particular) could be understood as three concentric spheres – consensus, legitimate controversy and deviance.

In the first of these, “consensus”, the assumption may be made that everyone here is in agreement (although we might wish to refine his definition slightly by suggesting that Hallin meant that “every supposedly right-minded person is in agreement”) and its substance hence requires no serious consideration or defence.

The second sphere, “legitimate controversy”, is the crucial area of public discourse, disagreement and respectful debate, hence the word “legitimate”. Nor is the word “controversy” one we should fear if we use the word properly.

Public discourse

The third sphere of “deviance” – an unusually robust term in the lexicon of today – covers those ideas that are so foolish, distasteful or taboo that discussion is futile. Hallin’s hypothesis is an elegant and persuasive model for understanding not only media methodology, but public discourse in general.

We should certainly consider whether Hallin’s middle sphere, “legitimate controversy”, has today become shrivelled and warped. What is now also called an “opinion corridor” for reasoned public discussion and debate has been narrowed and contracted to a point where it barely exists.

What is now also called an 'opinion corridor' for reasoned public discussion and debate has been narrowed and contracted to a point where it barely exists

It seems that far too many of us are content to regard a particular viewpoint – our own viewpoint – as a total “given” and as the consensus among right-minded people (requiring no further consideration), and any other stance as so utterly deviant and absurd as to be worthy only of ridicule or abuse.

Hallin’s middle sphere of “legitimate controversy” – a wide corridor (or major sphere) for intelligent and respectful public discussion on any issue – has seemingly been bullied virtually out of existence. And, sadly, virtually no attention is being paid to such a disastrous development.

We might attribute this to a culture that has become increasingly uninterested in detail, nuance or generosity, and prefers the echo chamber of the angry tweet or FaceBook rant to the presentation of calm and carefully argued reasoning.

John Stuart Mill’s adage that “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that” is given little credence.

Perhaps we need also to consider another aspect of this contraction in this sphere of the legitimate controversy – that which cries out for careful nuanced discussion in place of bullying tirade or manipulative abuse of language.

We have now become used to persuasion being founded on what appeals to the emotions (what Aristotle called pathos). We hear the stories of individual experience, and are invited to respond emotionally to them, rather than thinking coolly through the logic and full implications of what is being suggested to us.

Cold-eyed logic

Aristotle conceded that no argument would be won on cold-eyed logic and total rationality alone (what he called logos).

In the sphere of legitimate controversy, pathos will of course have its rightful place but it will be balanced by logos and a careful consideration of the totality of a “case”, including the opinions of those with whom we have little in common and for whom we find it difficult to feel much sympathy.

We might add the third component of the troika that Aristotle suggested for proper persuasion: ethos. By this, he meant a sense of security, of understanding where we have come from.

We must learn to interrogate carefully the tradition we have received, not living contentedly with a lazy assumption that it is axiomatially pernicious. We do not invent reality ex nihilo (out of nothing) , with no proper perspective on what we have received from our past, not only what was noxious but also what was truly decent.

We rightly fear the rise of unrestrained populism and the attendant dangers of totalitarian horror, from whatever source these may come.

Our greatest immediate need in this context is surely to realise the absolute necessity of applying to the rapidly changing social, moral and political vistas with which we are constantly confronted, not only our “gut feelings” but also our minds and, with this, a proper and objective understanding of what we have received from the past.

Otherwise we will fully deserve the cataclysm that may engulf us. For this reason, if for no other, Hallin’s sphere of “legitimate controversy” must not only be enlarged again in public consciousness, but forever be guarded with care.

Archbishop Richard Clarke is Church of Ireland Primate of All Ireland