"We are losing the art of civil debate in our society, as we secularize...because we are losing the ability to understand the value of the other person. Voltaire is accredited as saying, "I may disagree with you, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." That's not the way we conduct the debate at the moment in this country or in the west. If we don't like someone else's debate now, we demonise the person who puts the idea on the table. Voltaire understood...that each individual ought to be valued enough for you to say let them put their idea on the table, then we'll debate that idea. The greater the potpourri of ideas we've got in a pluralist society the better the chance we have of getting good policy out of it. We will never get good policy in this country again until we learn how to have a civilized debate where we debate the issues and decide the case on the merits, not on, sorry to say it, popular applause." - John Anderson, former deputy Prime Minister
Last night, the Australian Christian Lobby hosted the Make It Count 2013 Election Webcast, featuring a panel of experts presenting a Christian worldview on a wide range of issues being debated during the current election campaign. While there were many viewpoints expressed of interest to me, I was particularly interested by what former deputy Prime Minister John Anderson had to say about the issue of civility in debating social, political and religious issues.
Secularisation of society has hijacked public debate, demonising and ridiculing any point of view that conflicts with popular opinion. The freedom of speech we celebrate as a democratic nation and the foundations of belief for people of faith are systematically being eroded by the facade of tolerance and equality. This is highlighted by a form of hypocrisy emerging from a secular worldview that defends diversity of opinion and lifestyle on one hand, while on the other hand attacking and labeling a biblical worldview as bigotry. The paradox of the current social and political climate is that it has traded civil dialogue for hostile debate, contradicting the values it seeks to defend.
This critique of the impact of secularisation on civil dialogue, however, must be balanced with the acknowledgement that the same hostility and hypocrisy experienced by a biblical worldview today has historically been inflicted upon society by dogmatic religious views.
What is really needed today is a return to open respectful dialogue by exchanging hostility for civility and embracing a genuine appreciation for diversity of thought that contributes to healthy discussion.
As a person who holds a strong biblical worldview, it is ironic that I agree with Voltaire's philosophy, "I may disagree with you, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." Well, I may not literally defend to the death. However, I have learned to value and engage in dialogue that welcomes a diverse range of social and religious views without feeling the need to demean or belittle those with whom I would disagree, and yet still maintain my faith convictions. In my current role as a Salvation Army Officer where this desire for civility is played out daily, I am in dialogue with people from other faiths, engage with community leaders who hold contrasting social views and provide pastoral support to those who don't share my moral and ethical convictions. The impact of this civil dialogue is strong diverse relationships that provide the foundation for healthy interaction between church and community.
Maybe if society was less concerned with "popular applause" and more prepared to embrace John Anderson's call for "civilized debate where we debate the issues" and not "demonise the person who puts the idea on the table" we would have some hope of addressing the complex issues facing our nation.