The cheap-talk challenge: what is debate really for?

About the author

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at

You can't be involved for long with openDemocracy - or with any serious new-media publication - without soon needing a reply to the "cheap-talk" challenge: "what's all this debate for anyway?" Are we just doing fire-drill, waiting for the day when holding power to account will be a matter of saving civilisation? Or does all this talk do more? Does it define who we are, and, in pervasive ways we hardly notice, change our behaviour, our beliefs of what is possible and our impact on those around us?

Tony Curzon Price is the editor-in-chief of openDemocracy.

He worked as a consultant economist for more than ten years. Since 1997, he has lectured on economics and energy policy to postgraduates at Imperial College, London, and at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Among Tony Curzon Price's articles in openDemocracy:

"The ‘as if' economist: Milton Friedman's legacy"(27 November 2006)

"The wisdom of the openDemocracy crowd"(29 December 2006)

"The Economist Redux"(5 February 2007)

"Tony Blair and centralisation"(20 February 2007)

"The reach of economics: a reply to Diane Coyle(13 March 2007)

"Das Google Problem: is the invisible mouse benevolent?"(20 April 2007)

"The reinvention of scarcity" (13 June 2007)

"Making up minds" (23 July 2007)

"Corporate liability and social interest" (25 July 2007)

"The end of gentlemanly capitalism" (13 August 2007)

"The conditions of quality" (22 August 2007)

"Gordon Brown: between rock and hard place" (18 September 20
These are the big questions of "why debate?" But the answers will also inform all the everyday decisions that a web publication needs to make. Should commenters be registered? Is anonymity allowed? Does reputation grow? Should the debating community moderate itself? Should different areas have different levels of "openness"? Should articles be commissioned to fit into well-conceived debates, or should editors rely on unprompted submissions to create debate? Why should philanthropists or public bodies fund the sort of conversation that we make?

The Grays Inn Road pioneers

To discuss the cheap-talk challenge, I imagine bringing together a panel in openDemocracy's office whose members have a modest track-record on debate: Plato, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas. I will use "Cmdr Taco" as the alias of web-savvy pragmatism in the discussion. Cmdr Taco founded the techno-libertarian community and forum, Slashdot in September 1997. Slashdot is still the best example of a web-made community, so I feel that Cmdr Taco should be the mouthpiece for the web in this imaginary conversation. But almost everything I have Cmdr Taco say here is made up by me. (Plato, like Cmdr Taco, also uses an alias. Plato was actually the name of an Athenian champion wrestler in the games of 406 bce. Adopting the name would be like posting in the openDemocracy forums calling myself Mohammed Ali.)

Cmdr Taco: People want to discuss things on the web. How should we do it?

Plato: We should take it as given that very few of us both can and want to strive for the Truth in questions up for debate. When Socrates asked questions, it was always not only in full knowledge of the answer, but in full knowledge of the way that coming to an answer could convince people. The perfect debate is perfectly orchestrated. The master of debate understands the mental development of the audience (and occasional participants). The outcome of a good debate are minds changed according to a script. In Meno, Socrates at his most masterful can be seen convincing a slave-boy that he understand Pythagoras and has lived previous lives. Notice that the purpose of this dialogue is rhetorical: the Truth is already known by the master.

My advice to a website designer: line up the expert writers; on each question, carefully orchestrate a position ...a bit like the opinion columns of the newspapers, I suppose ...

Cmdr Taco: The slave-boy example might be considered to be a hazard of the method. The power of framing ideas is so very great that it is easy to get an audience off the narrow track of plausibility. There are enough conspiracy sites on the web to demonstrate that. Also, we can no longer make the assumption that you can find, on any topic, the "masterful" voice - that sort of confident absolutism has been undermined by the philosophy and the events of the post-Enlightenment.

Moreover, debate as just a rhetorical trick doesn't sit properly with the amount of time and energy humans devote to debate... There is presumably something actually at stake here.

I think that the Platonic view of debate might have had its place in the early days of the BBC under the patrician, directive oversight of its founder John Reith; but it flies against the reality of web-media and web-design.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: I have looked both at communications and political institutions: I think that debate, properly framed, is about creating an emergent agreement among human groups essential for their proper social functioning. It is about Agreement, not Truth; about Politics, not Philosophy.

Debate makes society; it is certainly not rhetoric. Just as language started in a simple act of collective hunting, so a group can assemble, and given the right conditions of equality within, can determine the "General Will" and the right course of action for any collective act. If getting such a degree of agreement that we can talk about a General Will sounds ambitious, then remember what I said about the "conditions of equality"'. I have not been able to define them all that precisely, but think of a primitive mountain village, or ancient Sparta. Somewhere that is small and has a create sense of cohesive identity.

Cmdr Taco: There are things that I like in that vision: debate is essentially about doing; this reminds me of what people write today about deliberative democracy, and I hope someone - maybe openDemocracy - will make a place for this on the web.

But you seem very confident that the General Will emerges, and that its emergence is a good thing. My own early experience on Slashdot is that as a group grows, and especially as it grows in anonymity, we get an invasion of the babblers. The discovery of the General Will degenerates into a festival of the Will to Grandstand. So I am a little sceptical about your vaguely defined "conditions of equality". If I had not been a ``benevolent dictator'' on Slashdot, imposing systems aimed to shut up the bores, Slashdot would have become unreadbale.

A further concern - which many have levelled at you, I think, is about what Will does actually emerge. Just as with Socrates' Truth, the General Will is a bit of a liability when it results in the collective madness that has overcome the parties to power so often since you wrote. Robespierre, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and the usual suspects have been illuminated by bloody General Will. Do we have to have this link between Debate and Truth that both you and Socrates seem to hold on to?

Argument on the web does not have to be about living together and the social contract we make, although I do think that every website is a small republic. We come together and the rules of our joint creation - at least in the cybersphere - will determine how successful each micro-republic becomes. But we are distributing a limited number of social goods only: thoughts, attention, kudos and ego.

John Stuart Mill: I always resisted any narrowly majoritarian interpretation of Truth, although I certainly believe in a single, establishable Truth. I founded magazines, debating societies and public commissions in my time, and I think the web can be used to operate more or less as these publications did.

My early debating societies brought together open-minded, but not one-minded, men in the quest for the Truth on the big topics of the day. We selected who would talk, and over several weeks we would hear their well-prepared arguments. I remember particularly fondly ...The Westminster Review did a very similar job in print ...Unfortunately, it was always a vanity asset and eventually went the way of Vanities.

Maybe the greatest public debate of my life was the public commission that opposed me and Darwin to Carlyle, Dickens, Tennyson on the question of Governor Eyre's criminality in his violent suppression of the Jamaican uprising of 1865. We felt that an important moment in the history of colonialism had been reached, that this was not being properly debated in our existing institutions, and that public confrontation between what we by then were - grand old men of thought - would bring this moment in history the publicity it needed.

Cmdr Taco: I think that the forms of debate you are describing are exemplary, but require conditions for emergence that are very narrow. In a way, the op-ed pages of dailies or the talking-heads shows of serious radio are the descendants of your debating forums. Think of BBC Radio 4's In Our Time or FranceCulture's Les vendredi de la Philosophie. These are "cultivated conversations" in the double sense: about cultural questions, but also as highly tended as a formal garden.

Babble is avoided by participant selection and strong editorial direction and an awareness on the part of the participants that they are participating in a public act in a public realm; this invites certain responsibilities that may add to or subtract from reputations.

The "magazine" section of openDemocracy is a very good example of this model translated pretty directly to the web. Our editors orchestrate debate, bringing public intellectuals from around the world into the argument. Their contributions are timed to fit with the state of the debate as well as the turn of events; their contributions are carefully edited and sub-edited for their impact to be maximised.

This process is very valuable. Maybe the conditions that it creates for debate are the "special conditions of equality"' that Rousseau vaguely alludes to, but applied to the restricted realm of public intellectuals - a group that already lives by all the virtues which make for excellence in joint conversation.

Also in openDemocracy: dLiberation - discovering tomorrow's Europe, a blog dedicated to exploring the merits of deliberative democracy in the context of the Tomorrow's Europe experiment on 12-14 October 2007; edited by J Clive Matthews, it features contributions from (among many others) James S Fishkin, Arthur Lupia, Amy Gutmann, and Ian O'Flynn

But I do have some reservations. It is exclusive (a particularly heavy burden when your values revolve around "openness"' and "democracy"'); it hands huge power to the framers of debate; its polish can dampen the passion and creativity of cut-and-thrust debate. One of the joys of reading the best of the debates that are created on Slashdot is the energy that they convey, the polyphony, the unexpected turns of thread. At its best, massively participative online authorship can create a sense of collective identity that I have seen nowhere else...

Hannah Arendt: I would like to jump in on that point. Debate creates a public space, and a public space creates the possibility of action - the sort of joint action that is distinctly human. Power - the force of social action - needs that public realm as a precondition, and debate is at the heart of its creation. There is no notion of a "we" until we have a space, like a dinner-table, that both brings us together and sets us apart; that allows us to become ourselves through expressive acts recognised for their value by our peers.

Cmdr Taco, in his criticisms of openDemocracy and its "Millian magazine"' is implicitly adopting my view that debate is expressive both of identity and of diversity: it underlines both what we share and what separates us. However ...although I agree that the best joint creation on Slashdot has all the energy of the revolutionary spaces - like the Constitutional Convention for the United States of America - that I love, I think that it "works"' partly because of some outside characteristics of the community: united against the outside enemy (M$) and by a common cause (FreeOpenSourceSoftware [Foss]), sharing weapons (Linux), day-to-day experience (employees in the tech world), a sense of humour and history. Many of the "particular circumstances of equality"' have been built into the community from the start.

I do not want to detract from Cmdr Taco's achievement: the Foss revolution - much heralded on Slashdot - may one day in fact come; and the space of common creation at Slashdot will then be properly credited as having provided the condition of collective judgment, action and the stage on which geeks became themselves.

I look at all the reasons for which we continue to need, and desperately, the space that makes us human. Where is the space that will define the joint humanity of atheists and fundamentalists; modernists and traditionalists; polluters and polluted; centres and peripheries?

Remember: these are the spaces that make us human, and if we cannot make them, our behaviour will be inhuman...

Cmdr Taco: Thank you for your lukewarm compliment about the community we have at Slashdot: I think that this has indeed become one of the spaces that you describe. Computer programmers and SysAdmins from all over the world, often isolated in cubicles, silent in un-geeky corporate environments, come every hour to participate in creating our world. And we are making a revolution. Look at the changing of the guard from Microsoft to Google: it would have been unthinkable without the Foss community that Google relies on and now nourishes.

I like the portentousness of the notion that Slashdot "allows geeks to become themselves". In web-design terms, I would like to point to the importance of moderation and of Karma to get all this working. The trouble with revolutionary spaces is that they can get clogged up by incredibly boring ranters. The moderation I developed on Slashdot allows the crowd - or a subset of it - to clap or jeer, the effect of which is to make jeered interventions in the debate less prominent. And "Karma" is a metric that increases members' status in the community when they do something that contributes to the public good.

What I rediscovered on Slashdot when I implemented Karma and moderation I think is a universal of functioning public spaces: you need history and reputation; there must be mechanisms for self-policing...

rgen Habermas: And that is where I fear that Hannah is being too optimistic about what the web can bring. She seems to be unboundedly optimistic about the sort of humanity created in the revolutionary moment. The French revolution, unlike the American, is derailed into terror by economic constraints, she thinks.

Tony Curzon Price's article continues openDemocracy's "Democracy and deliberation" debate, which also features:

James S Fishkin, "Deliberative polling: distilling the crowd's wisdom" (12 October 2007)

Matthias Benz, "Democratic vote or deliberative poll?" (13 October 2007)

John Jackson, "From deliberative to determinative democracy" (15 October 2007)

However, what would she make of those iconic contemporary moments of public speech-acts: the Iranian students in 1979 riding to power on the chant of "Death to America", a moment depressingly repeated in Lebanon, Iraq and now in the video-blogs of suicide-bombers; or the Hutu radio stations clamouring for blood. It is instructive that Hannah takes modern bureaucratic banality as the source of Nazi evil in someone like Eichmann. But our more recent enemies are not obviously in the same mould, not so clearly modern.

Hannah's hopes for the humanising impacts of public debate still need a Rousseau-like notion of the "conditions of equality". She hopes for a space that will bring together "atheists and fundamentalists; modernists and traditionalists; polluters and polluted; centres and peripheries ..." But the shared assumptions which will make CmdrTaco's Karma and moderation function do not exist at the poles of discussion: the space will not create reputation that the poles care for; the crowd's judgment will be polarised, and no subtle information will come out of moderation. A civilised conversation is already such a recognition of equality that most of the hard work has been done before anything is said.

On openDemocracy as well as on Slashdot, you already see that the space of dialogue either selects the group that already is relevantly equal, or it withers away. More challenging than creating a space for those that are already converted to the virtues of dialogue is the one of expanding that population. In this respect, I wonder whether openDemocracy's Millian magazine might not be more successful than the energetic clamour of Slashdot or the openDemocracy forums: an outsider to the tradition of disputation will be able to peer over the wall and see an exemplary debate, and possibly an attractive world.

Cheap talk's value in the web republic

Plato would have us design a site to deliver Truth; Rousseau would have it generate social agreement; Mill wants distributed judgment amongst intellectuals on the big questions of the day; Arendt wants a realm for the development of individuality and virtue; Habermas is looking for discursive Truth, but just as importantly is looking to propagate the conditions of modernity that permit it.

Cmdr Taco, asked why he keeps with Slashdot - and this is now the "real" CmdrTaco - answered:

"The thing is that every now and then we do something important. Like really important. We break a story, or house a discussion that changes a mind. I think that we serve an important role online. We're a pub where people gather to talk about the day's events, and I think this has tremendous value. I think I still am here because there's a community here that I like. And besides, it beats flipping burgers."

In other words, he is really pleased if, from time to time, he has changed a mind. Plato, Rousseau, Mill, Arendt and Habermas all to varying degrees take it for granted that changeable minds will be supplied; that once supplied, words work to change belief; and that changed beliefs change behaviours. As in so many fields, the practicalities of actually trying to change the world through discussion show up quite how much is really hard: marketing to bring debates to the "right" minds; burrowing through the information-overload of a connected mind; finding a shared language; making words effective, offering challenge, entertainment, credibility...

But it is precisely because all this is hard that talk in the web republic need not be cheap.