On Tuesday 8 November, Scott Stephens, online editor for the ABC’s Religion and Ethics page, delivered the 2022 Simone Weil lecture on Human Value in Melbourne. Stephens reflected on the state of modern conversation, arguing that by attending more carefully to ‘the spaces between us’, we might nurture a healthier democratic culture. In those spaces, he said, we learn how to speak with each other in more respectful, constructive and hospitable ways—in contrast to the tribalism and incendiary rhetoric that have come to dominate so much of the current public conversation, particularly on social media.

First held in 2000, the Simone Weil Lecture was as an initiative of Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita, and invites distinguished scholars to reflect on themes inspired by the ethical vision of French philosopher and activist Simone Weil, whose work highlighted themes of mutual obligation, attentiveness, compassion, justice and the pursuit of the good. The 2022 lecture—titled ‘“We do not breathe well”: Tending the moral conditions of our common life’—was hosted by both the ACU School of Philosophy and ABC Radio National.

Stephens dedicated the lecture to Raimond Gaita, whose work, he said, ‘invites us to see the world and the world of our fellow creatures in a different light, seeing our fellow creatures as proper objects of love, as bearers of a kind of inexhaustible preciousness, and that, it seems to me, transforms the nature of the battlefield altogether.’

The art of disagreeing well

Seen in the light of Gaita’s vision, Stephens said, our shared spaces and forums of public conversation are often revealed as severely wanting. Our shared air, he said, ‘has become, in effect, unbreathable for others.’

Alongside his editorial role at the ABC, Stephens is co-host, with Waleed Aly, of The Minefield on ABC Radio National. Together, Stephens and Aly penned the recent Quarterly Essay Uncivil Wars: How Contempt is Corroding Democracy, exploring the ways that democratic culture has been severely weakened by people’s growing inability to disagree or even talk with each other civilly on serious topics. His lecture took up many of the themes of the essay.

The rise of the media—both mass media and social media—has transformed society, shaping the way we think and talk about one another. While it would be easy to name and blame specific bad actors, the truth, according to Stephens, is far more humbling. Through our media habits—our desire for easy answers and ‘hot takes’, our frequent talking past or at one another instead of with one another—we have become complicit in the habitual dehumanisation of other people, Stephens said. By so eagerly consuming every new product proffered by ‘the new titans of Silicon Valley’, he argued, we have often helped to destroy the kinds of conversational spaces where we could seriously but civilly disagree about politics and other opinions, and where we could, in Gaita’s words, ‘call our fellow citizens to seriousness’.

Democracy, fragile as it is, rests on the idea that fellow citizens can come together and talk, debate, argue and even disagree, while still recognising the things they have in common: a common home, a common love and a common humanity.

As Stephens pointed out, the early days of the mass media were often marked by an optimistic belief in the positive effects of what were then exciting new communications technologies. The poet and thinker Walt Whitman, for instance, likened the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable to ‘the dawn of a millennium day to the troubled nations’, ushering in ‘a golden age of peace on earth and goodwill to man’. Similarly, the motto of the BBC—quoting the prophet Isaiah and adopted in 1927—is ‘Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation.’

The mass media had its critics, though—among them, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who was convinced that it would turn public conversation into nothing more than an ‘abstract noise’, eroding meaningful human connection and conversation.

Stephens argued that rather than nourishing authentic human connection, our media technology has made us ‘profoundly unreal to one another, leading us to despair or to deny that we could have any real connection with those with whom we radically disagree.’

The diminishment of our moral language has only exacerbated this polarisation, according to Stephens. While the political world is saturated in the language of moral and ethical conviction, we have reduced morality to the ‘ends’ or goals we wish to achieve, thereby reducing our political opponents to obstacles in the path to our success. Rather than complex fellow humans, they become mere inconveniences, people with whom we cannot contemplate a shared future.

But Stephens believes it is precisely the ‘means’ and not just the ‘ends’ that make up the moral life: the most basic stuff of human life happens in the spaces between us and not just in one group’s achievement or victory. In those spaces, we learn how to speak with each other. Unlike social media, which lends itself to self-assertion and rash judgments, occupying the same space as those with whom we disagree allows us to learn the art of hesitation, of reading someone’s body language, of treating them as if they are people of value.

When we share an actual space with someone, rather than relating to them through a screen, he said, the other person no longer functions as an avatar or symbol of what we believe is wrong with the world. They are inevitably humanised.

Democracy is much like a marriage, Stephens said. It is the small, routine, daily habits of attention that sustain it over the long haul. If we want to cultivate a healthy democratic culture, one that looks with hope towards the future, we must attend to these spaces between us, prioritising the small and the common, even the simple gift of being present to another person. We must relearn some of the most basic things of all, like the arts of conversation and persuasion and attention. We must relearn habits of grace.

Stephens concluded:

In such a time, the moral challenge is to cultivate the space in which others can breathe, can hear and be heard. For it is only through the essential democratic tasks of patience and withdrawal, of acknowledgment and remorse, of mutual interrogation and truthful silence … [that] democracy’s aspirations become a moral reality.
SS headshot
Scott Stephens is the ABC’s Religion and Ethics online editor, and co-host, with Waleed Aly, of The Minefield on ABC Radio National. He is widely published on moral philosophy and has edited volumes of the writings of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita. Photo supplied.

Uncivil Wars—a brief review

The Quarterly Essay Uncivil Wars by Scott Stephens and Waleed Aly is an important contribution to debates about the future of public discourse, and a deeply convicting read. Anyone who cares about the state of public conversation could not fail to be moved in some way by their diagnosis.

The authors provide an especially illuminating history of the media and how the growing competition between the late 19th-century American news tycoons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst marked a shift in how news was reported as they inflamed and exploited human vices to sell their tabloids.

For those of us who are feeling worn down by politics, the authors provide a refreshing perspective on democracy. Rather than viewing it purely as an exercise in power, democracy can instead be thought of as ‘a kind of pastoral activity,’ they argue, emerging from ‘a people’s concern to care for the conditions of their common life’. Rather than being simply about the levers of coercion, it is intrinsically connected to the culture from which political power grows. Authentic democracy grows from a truly democratic culture, they argue, and that culture needs to be tended carefully, with great attention and love. We should be paying special attention to the quality of the ‘air’ we breathe together—to how our words and conversation affect each other.

This essay is a wake-up call, a challenge to reassess our media habits and to consider how we might cultivate the art of conversation, attention and grace in our own lives and communities. If you are convinced something needs to change in the way we engage in public discourse, then this essay is a good place to start thinking about how that change might happen.