Room for Discussion: Towards a More Grassroots Approach to Public Discourse
By Eric Dümon Published Sat Dec 26 2020 Photo Credits: Room for Discussion Understanding the decisive social matters of our time can be a daunting task. A task that is not made any easier by the creativity that some public figures display when it comes to telling the truth. But you don’t need this article to be reminded of this. What you need, what we all need, is an answer to all these academics and journalists saying that ‘We need to alter the tone of public discourse and make political discussions civil again’. Such statements have been made many times, and yet one cannot help but feel like we are living in an era where everyone primarily listens to opinions she already believes in, and does her upmost to discredit and shame all others. Something is needed to burst these echo chambers.
An approach that might be able to mitigate this phenomena -to burst these echo chambers- is the by now world famous student initiative ‘Room for Discussion’ at Universiteit van Amsterdam. In the wake of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, a group of students led by Maurits Kruithof started Room for Discussion to bridge the gap between economics in the news and economics as a science. Since then, Room for Discussion has organised weekly hour-long interviews about economic and political topics. A self-proclaimed mixture of journalistic curiosity and scientific rigour, Room for Discussion aims at making scientific debates and facts available to the public.
We got in touch with Joaquin from Room for Discussion who told us how: ‘‘I think that people need to acknowledge that just like they might feel very strongly about their own opinion, people will equally feel so towards their own. Thus, distancing from one another would be a grave mistake. On this point I really like a quote from Tim Minchin which is “We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts”. I think the worst we can do is just immediately reject everything and anything we do not agree with. Platforms like Room for Discussion need to continue to engage with all kinds of ideas, issues, and diverse viewpoints and provide an open space where people can debate with each other, but most importantly acknowledge nuances. Ultimately the goal should be to encourage people to think critically and to constantly re-evaluate their own opinions.’’
Room for Discussion has not shied away from inviting controversial speakers. The Canadian author and psychologist Jordan Peterson would be one example. Of course, giving such a figure a stage does not come without criticism.“In the past we have received criticism for inviting guests with which people disagree”, Joaquin tells us “First, we handle that criticism by always including a Q&A timeframe in our interviews in which anyone from our audience can ask a question or have a discussion with our guests. Moreover, we as a committee are always open for ideas, suggestions, worries or advice. I encourage everyone to contact us by our email which is on our website.’’
“I assume that mainstream media is increasingly under economic constraint because nowadays anyone can access any newspaper in the world from their smartphones or computers. Thus, at a time when human attention has never been so competed for, newspapers tend to differentiate themselves by becoming more polarising, and increasingly portray unbiased opinions to retain audience’s attention.
I would argue that student-led platforms have one advantage over mainstream media: they come into direct contact with students. Therefore, they can stimulate students not to isolate themselves within their own political preferences, but rather encourage an open debate about current politico-economic events.’’
And he has a point. Initiatives like Room for Discussion have several advantages. For example, they can make use of in-house knowledge by virtue of being a university institutions. Furthermore, Room for Discussion is a sub-committee of SEFA, the student association for Economics and Business at the Universiteit van Amsterdam, and can hence enjoy of high levels of independence. But most importantly, the setup of a podium discussion, followed by a public Q&A session, allows for real grassroots debate of topics in a real world environment. This certainly contributes to a more civilised, yet engaged discussion.
Of course, one has to be realistic. A relatively small and local initiative like Room for Discussion cannot, and will not, alter the overall divides and surges in our society. But maybe it’s time we mentally distance ourselves from ‘one fits all’ approaches and start embracing a fundamental principle of democracy: Diversity. Different settings call for different approaches. A smaller, local framework can also tackle diverse and global problems, while being smaller in scale and hence more capable of empowering and restoring agency to everyone involved.