Deep Debate Online
A new initiative to support fair and balanced debate on contentious issues.

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that” John Stuart Mill

Inaugural topic: The Gaza Conflict 2014      debate start page »

For twelve years Blackheath Philosophy Forum has organized public discussion forums on philosophical topics. In recent years we have also included some forums on political issues with an emphasis on broad philosophical and ideological aspects.

Many of these issues, especially the political ones, are highly contentious and generate robust debate. Unfortunately, such debates often descend into acrimony with the core issues at stake obscured or ignored and advocates for different sides ‘talking past’ each other. This is excacerbated by the spread of social media. How can you do justice to a complex issue in a 140-character Tweet? Some have drawn attention to the emergence of virtual echo chambers where people have their preconceptions contantly reinforced and rarely challenged.

Is there a better way, one that does justice to difficult and complex issues? At Blackheath Philosophy Forum we have decided to test the hypothesis by creating a new area on our website called Deep Debate Online. And to kick it off we have chosen an issue that is about as contentious as it gets – the recent conflict in Gaza.

This choice of topic arose from a dinner conversation following our second-last forum between our speaker Peter Slezak (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of NSW) and the forum chair Peter Baldwin. It quickly became apparent that the two disagreed fundamentally, especially about the nature of Hamas and its role in the tragedy. Despite this disagreement the discussion was civil and constructive and continued by email afterward.

Both discussants agreed to proceed as follows:

  1. Peter Baldwin will kick off by setting out his viewpont in detail and posting it on the Deep Debate Online website.
  2. Peter Slezak will respond at whatever length he thinks appropriate and this response will also be posted.
  3. Both participants can then respond to each other as many times as they think appropriate, leading to the kind of extended exchange that you see at the New York Review of Books.
  4. An attempt will then be made to identify the pivotal issues that underpin the debate and explore them systematically.
  5. Other interested people will be able to join the discussion using a separate comments area attached to each posted article.

What might this achieve? If not ultimate agreement, at least a better understanding of where each side in the debate is coming from. This would constitute some kind of progress - as John Stuart Mill said: “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that”.

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