What chance of a better future if we fail to maintain spaces where radical disagreement can be explored?by Daniel Callcut / January 3, 2020 / Leave a comment
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…