John Stott was scrupulous in attempting to do this. It was a key element of the respect that he garnered amongst those he debated or disagreed.
He would unfailingly attempt to honour an opposing position by seeking to understand it from the inside, and thereby be able to articulate it as its proponents might. In other words, to present its best arguments rather than its worst. If he sensed the need to name names in a talk or publication – and from time to time, he would not shy away from doing so – he would try to make contact with that individual privately in advance. In that way, they would have fair warning and the opportunity to evaluate his articulation of their position.
The problem with doing this, of course, is that it is labour intensive. It requires far greater research than, for example, a knee-jerk reaction that latches onto a line that seems dubious or dangerous. Which is probably why it is so rare.
It is the antithesis of soundbite politics and twitter disputes. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it is the opposite of contemporary debate full-stop. Everybody is so siloed in their own echo-chambers that they have no need to make the effort to understand, let alone be understood.
The emergence of the image-manager in the political arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to the fact that television demands a different kind of content from other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content. (p7)
So it is with Twitter and Facebook. I simply don’t believe they can ever be useful platforms for fostering civility in debate (not unless some major adjustments are made, for which I completely lack the creative intelligence to imagine what they might be).
Please note, however, that I’m not talking about the ability to summarise in a pithy way. Stott was himself the master of the succinct summary statement that sparkled with crystal clarity. I suspect he would have been a master of twitter, actually. What I’m on about is the issue of how we dispute and debate.
In short, we need to learn this vital discipline.
We should summarise others’ positions as they would wish to have them summarised.