The Perils of Extreme Balance

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“Some Days the only thing we can agree on, is that we can’t agree on anything”

Julia Dhar


In August, earlier this year, academic and Green Party member Rupert Read refused to participate in a debate about climate change on the BBC with a climate change denier. This was due to growing frustrations in the “balanced coverage” that the BBC (and many other news organisations) were providing on the issue.

This term “balance” is perhaps misleading as it is constructed by taking two extreme viewpoints and giving them equal weight. This kind of extreme balance is staged for contradiction and conflict. The BBC responded to this criticism by saying “we would take care to reflect all viewpoints in the debate about the science and policy giving them due weight”.  The problem with this is that it is not reflecting all viewpoints but just the most extreme.

By creating this kind of extreme balance, it makes both seem equally credible but divisively so; these “two sides” are so polarized in their position that if you believe one of them, you are hard pushed to see credibility in the other. This fosters an environment where we are not only adamant of our own position but we completely reject another’s. By only including those at the most extreme ends of the conversation, the debate itself becomes more extreme and diplomacy is lost. Rather than having a constructive debate that discusses difference, we have a destructive debate that is made up of arguments. This kind of “balanced” debate is all wrong.

Instead, we should reflect all viewpoints as they occur naturally in the real world including the more moderate viewpoints that may help create common ground. Without this, we divide people over this issue and simplify the debate. This oversimplification can lead to misinformation and miseducation but none the less becomes our basis of understanding. We the “take a position” on something we come to think we know something about through the poorly debated issue rather than being humbly ignorant on a subject.

This kind of polarized debate remains unproductive. In her brilliantly insightful and practical TED talk, Julia Dhar, looks at how we can achieve more productive communication between those on opposite sides. She suggests that people who disagree productively, do not start at polar opposites and work towards an agreement. It is the total opposite; they instead start by finding common ground, no matter how narrow it is. Once you have found something that can be agreed on, you then work your way out to the areas of conflict.

So, the first of three ways to disagree productively is to include the moderate middle in order to help find common ground. The second way is to depersonalise politics. Because politics is personal, it is easy to take it personally. The party we choose to support may reflect our values and our lifestyles. It is easy, in this case, to feel embarrassed or defensive when someone challenges our ideals. However, if we are to respectfully disagree, it is important to separate ideas from identity. When we start attacking the people behind the argument, rather than attacking merits of the arguments themselves, the opposition becomes more than different; they instead demonised as being dangerous. A clear-cut example of this was by Daily Mail on the 4thNovember 2016 when they published on their front cover three judges who had ruled that the UK government required parliamentary consent to give notice of Brexit. They were all published on the front page with a large header, titled, “Enemy of the People”. The paper attacked these people personally, including homophobic comments, for the policies they put in place.

Finally, we must remain flexible in our thinking and detached from the certainty of our ideas in order to leave room for the possibility that we could be wrong. In order to do this, we must listen to those who hold different beliefs. Without the possibility of listening and learning from each other, we instead resign ourselves to the idea that knowledge is fixed and someone is right and someone is wrong. Sometimes we become so attached to an idea that we see it as an extension of ourselves, it becomes part of our identity. But one of the best things you can do is flip entirely to the other side of the argument to argue against yourself. Challenge yourself to see the flaws in your ideas. Listen to the criticism of others. This is not necessarily for the purpose of abandoning your ideas, but to allow yourself to test them. If your idea is solid, it will withstand this kind of constructive scrutiny and may even allow you to refine it for the better. By allowing criticism in this way, it does not undermine what you are trying to achieve, it actually helps you to get there. By allowing ourselves to see ways in which you might be wrong, we become better decision makers. We can become less defensive and more collaborative. We may even find some common ground and work better with each other rather than continuously working against each other.


Watch Julia Dhar’s talk here:


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