What teaching philosophy taught me about BBC balance

What chance of a better future if we fail to maintain spaces where radical disagreement can be explored?

January 03, 2020
BBC New Broadcasting House sign in central London. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Archive/PA Images
BBC New Broadcasting House sign in central London. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Archive/PA Images

Perhaps nothing is so distrusted, in an age that prizes authenticity, as the attempt to act in a politically neutral fashion. The recent general election has brought accusations of BBC news bias to a new level of intensity. The organisation’s claims to balanced coverage, under attack from left and right, represent one more pillar of the traditional liberal order under threat of disintegration. Does anyone really believe in the idea of media impartiality anymore? Isn’t this just one more centrist idea that is collapsing not just practically but philosophically too?

The worry about impartiality being a moribund idea doesn’t just face broadcasters. It confronts everyone from teachers to judges. What do you do if the stereotypically teenage complaint, everyone is biased, is deemed to have been right all along? I think of my experience of teaching philosophy in the United States and I think it contains some useful answers. What I shall suggest is that, even if true neutrality is ultimately impossible, it is a terrible overreaction to give up on the aspiration to balance.

In the 2000s, in Florida, I used to teach a course titled Contemporary Ethical Issues. The standard way of teaching the class—a path I tended to follow—was to present a variety of opposing points of view on currently controversial topics. Thus I found myself for example teaching the heated debate over (as it was then called) “gay marriage.” I also covered such different topics as euthanasia and, funnily enough, media bias.

Teaching Contemporary Ethical Issues risked upsetting a lot of the audience. I taught an essay on the permissibility of abortion to a student population that was largely Christian and largely opposed to abortion rights. On the other hand, I also taught an anti-abortion article, and this could obviously cause upset and anger too, most obviously to students who had already had one or more abortions. The students knew the topics from the syllabus on the first day of class and I made clear that we would be discussing and debating issues that provoke passionate division. They had the option of choosing a different course but still… a warning of what was to come seemed only fair.

There was a need to teach with sensitivity and to face the controversial issues with a vivid sense of the ethical and emotional stakes. But not to teach the topics at all seemed like a cop-out. The acclaimed British philosopher Bernard Williams rightly complained back in the early 1970s that too much moral philosophy was simply leaving all the important issues undiscussed. He was right to insist that philosophy—like the news—needs to engage with issues of public concern and matters of deep controversy.

Williams also admirably said that at the heart of moral philosophy is the inevitable risk of misleading people about matters of importance. However, this immediately takes us to one of the main complaints about so-called “balance.” If the risk is misleading people, why teach (or cover) opposing sides of a topic, as opposed to the view that you think is right? After all, there’s been enormous damage done to public understanding of climate science by broadcasters who give equal time to opposing viewpoints in the name of balance. Isn’t sitting with one leg either side of the fence not just an uncomfortable position but wrong?

Jean-Paul Sartre distinguished between intellectuals and artists who worked in a spirit of bourgeois neutrality and those who were engaged. To be engaged, for Sartre, is to recognise that neutrality is impossible, and that all of your choices are tipping the world in one direction or other. You cannot, in American historian Howard Zinn’s resonant words, be neutral on a moving train. Perhaps for this reason, though also perhaps just out of personal temperament, some philosophers even choose to teach Contemporary Ethical Issues in a way that makes their own view emphatically clear. If impartiality is impossible, then it’s best to be upfront about it, and teach in a highly opinionated way.

I understand the decision to go for pronounced non-neutrality. To adapt Martin Luther: here’s what I stand for; I can do no other. But that was not what I did. My teaching would involve presenting the different perspectives found in the textbook as if I were the philosopher in question. One day I was philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson arguing that a woman has a right to remove a fetus from her body and the next day I was philosopher Don Marquis arguing that abortion is wrong because it denies the fetus a valuable future. I was a kind of philosophical performer: giving—or so I hoped—the students a taste of what it would be like to interact with accomplished advocates of alternative moral outlooks.

What you hope to do is nourish your students’ ability to understand and live with the fact that reasonable people can dramatically disagree. The poet John Keats admired Shakespeare’s philosophical openness, toleration of uncertainty, and capacity to see life from many angles: a package of qualities he termed “negative capability.” To encourage these qualities, I thought, was part of the point of teaching Contemporary Ethical Issues.

Was my approach the right one? Well, some students would object to the fact that I didn’t strongly and explicitly recommend one social policy over another. This, if you like, was a version of Sartre’s response to bourgeois writers: pick a side. Others would object to the fact that I encouraged philosophical sympathy for a wide range of positions. I taught in a part of the country, bear in mind, where the fundamentalist attitude was strong. Most students, from a variety of political persuasions, described me as fair. All this is a way of saying that, in the ordinary sense of the word, I was balanced.

I took a certain pride in the fact that students couldn’t guess my own positions. But I understood when one of the Baptist students, in a conversation after class, in effect described the course as a Trojan horse for liberalism. The ideals it encouraged—seeing things from many sides; dialogue as a response to controversy; cultivating autonomy of thought—are deeply associated with liberalism. Indeed, they are so central to liberal thought that it’s probably fair to say, as a radical critic might, that balance is an ideology within liberalism. Every approach embodies values and if you think that you are being value-neutral then you are simply self-deceived.

That’s the truth in the stereotypically teenage declaration that everyone is biased. Even balance itself, it turns out, isn’t neutral. The presence of fundamentalism made the non-neutrality of my approach very visible. My openness, by its very nature, was performing liberal tolerance—and, to some, sympathy for the devil. Nonetheless, there can be a deeply mistaken overreaction to the recognition that a value-free approach is impossible. There’s a temptation to think that if even balance is biased then you might as well give up on even the attempt at balance. If you are going to be a bear, as it were, then be a grizzly. But that the BBC can’t be ultimately neutral is no reason for it to turn into Fox News. There’s value in trying to be even-handed even if the value isn’t value-free.

What we call “neutrality” might be a misnomer but one can still value all the practices, attitudes and techniques that the word “neutrality” misnames. The ongoing political balancing act of the BBC is a basic part of its raison d’être. Critics who accuse the mainly centrist organisation of being hijacked by the right or the left should reflect on their own political location: if you are looking from the left then the BBC appears on the right just as from the right the BBC looks over to the left.

There aren’t ethical experts in the way that there are experts on climate: there is no science to detect moral truth. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t still dangers of so-called bothsidesism or false balance on ethical questions. Should I, for example, have taught opposing sides of the debate on same-sex marriage? I certainly look back and question my “officially neutral” approach: on the one side this, on the other side that, and so on. There were never any complaints on the anonymous course evaluations but I could understand if there had been students who thought that it was an insult even to frame the issue as up for debate. After all, I wouldn’t have had a discussion over whether marriage ought to be legal between people of different ethnic backgrounds.

Liberals, so the old joke goes, never met an argument they didn’t like. Perhaps it would have been better at times if I had been more strongly opinionated. But there is a danger with outspoken approaches that the class becomes an exercise in intellectual preaching. That would have put many of my students on the defensive: minds can just clam up, and you don’t get to have the kind of open conversation that needs to be had. I taught the debate over same-sex marriage in the period before the US Supreme Court recognised equal marriage rights. It felt very important to include the topic on the syllabus. I tried let the arguments speak for themselves.

Nonetheless, I understand why radicals are tempted, in effect, to say sod it to balance—or, as Denise Levertov puts it in the title of a brilliant poem, “Goodbye to Tolerance.” Moderators of controversial issues are unlikely to be viewed well when looked back upon from the future: by then there is perhaps only the right side of history. Still, what chance of a peaceful path to a better future if we fail to maintain cultural spaces where radical disagreement can be conversationally explored? Those who host such dialogues must learn how to construct middle ground. They will have to “act balanced.” They will need, in other words, to be like presenters on the much maligned yet indispensable BBC.