Posted: 9 November, 2022

Can we agree to disagree?

Blog, Debating, In the Press, News, Senior School, Sixth Form

How learning to listen and debate are keys to mutual understanding.

Twitter fan or not, it has been almost impossible to escape the global furore surrounding Elon Musk’s $44 billion purchase of the popular social media platform. In an open letter to advertisers, he promised to balance the restoration of free speech with preventing the platform from descending into a “hellscape”. As a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” his stated plan to reverse the Twitter ban on Donald Trump among others, provoked a global deluge of opinions.

Freedom of speech, particularly on social media, has become a minefield. Comparing his platform to a “de facto town square” Musk said during a TED interview in April that, “it’s just really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.” Nice in theory, but competing priorities (not least safeguarding for example) make this a more complex issue and one to which the education world is no stranger.

Our universities are a prime example. Today they exist in murky territory with campuses across the country, once a melting pot for challenging new ideas and even occasional disagreement, being accused of a “culture of cancellation”, rife with “trigger warnings” and “no-platforming” speakers whose views might be considered just too unpopular to be heard.

To tackle this, our government seeks to compel universities to promote free speech, rather than simple comply with it. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is currently being debated in the House of Lords. Could it be that our universities, once a bastion of critical thinking and debate, are now having a crisis of confidence? For the sake of their future students, our current students, I very much hope not.

Over a century on from John Stuart Mills’ concept of Freedom of Speech as an absolute libertarian ideal, it appears the principle is all well and good, but only as long as it doesn’t offend. After all, shouldn’t a civilised and inclusive society endeavour to protect people from harm? The trouble is, when ‘causing harm’ morphs into the more equivocal ‘causing offence’ it becomes a much more slippery concept.

This summer with the attack on author Salman Rushdie, we saw with horrifying clarity that the old “sticks and stones” adage can be woefully inadequate in our modern times. Causing offence, when taken to the limits, can lead to the attack on someone’s life. Thankfully, attacks like this are extremely rare, but across the ill-disciplined and largely unregulated internet, and particularly social media, attacks – albeit virtual – have become commonplace.

Anyone brave enough to tiptoe this territory will know that some subjects can be just too hot to handle. The evisceration of popular children’s author, JK Rowling for her views on gender and biological sex are a reminder that women’s rights, once the cri de guerre of a generation of activists, are now inextricably linked with Trans issues, and have landed her in extremely hot water. Tweets and memes appear at the touch of a button and echo in the chambers of our online lives.

In our modern world, agreement and disagreement have been ‘gamified.’ Rewards are dished out in the dopamine hits from our ‘likes’ and retweets and the penalties for voicing the ‘wrong’ opinion are trolling, social outing and even complete ‘cancellation’. This digital wild west is becoming increasingly difficult to police and try as we might, we cannot protect everyone from harm, nor should we. What then is the solution? Can we equip people to protect themselves?

Resilience has to be key. The Times newspaper recently reported that in some schools and universities, Generation Z (needing some intellectual toughening up) were being given classes on the art of disagreeing well. There is definitely something in this and it is no coincidence that resilient mindsets are something we champion at Putney, for every pupil, from day one. In fact, listening and learning to express ideas clearly are cornerstones of the education we offer. We know that to articulate your ideas, you also need to be able to listen to others’ points of view, especially if you want to win respect, or ever effect change.

Intellectual sparring is a great thing, and something which Putney pupils are not afraid of. So much so that the school now has a dedicated Debating Forum – a central hub for timetabled debating lessons for everyone and hours of clubs and competitions each week through which students learn to think clearly, to empathise with others and to persuade.

Access to a broad range of views gives students more confidence to engage, to think critically and to develop their own independent thinking. Our PIE programme (Putney Ideas Exchange) has for years exposed pupils to a plethora of speakers from different fields, often with challenging ideas.

Learning to speak and listen well are fundamental to Putney’s ethos, but as in any democratic culture, if we are to make progress, argument alone is not enough. For reasoned debate to succeed unclouded by distinctly human emotions and values, then we also need trust, accountability and honesty.

Student voice is very much part of that, and our Student Council meets regularly, led by the Student Leadership Team and with representatives from every year group ready to tackle subjects as diverse as the Environment, Diversity and always a hot topic: the lunch menu. The result is a platform for ideas and honest discussion with staff and a vehicle for positive change.

We have seen much progress. This term alone, our Year 12 have set up five new societies including a new multi-faith society – a space for all years and religions to come together. This builds on our work with the Black Curriculum Project and ongoing honest discussions about sub-conscious bias and steps that can be made to diversify the curriculum. Following the Everyone’s Invited revelations, frank discussions on female body image, school uniform and pupil safety have allowed student voice to be heard in a constructive and considered way. With increased awareness and engagement. Every day provides an opportunity for better understanding.

And understanding is vital. We need more of it!

We all have views we are passionate about, but if we want the right to voice those views, we must afford others the same courtesy and have the strength of character, the humility and the wisdom to engage critically with their content.

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