How we can agree to disagree

By Simon Smith

“What’s in it for me?”

For my new book Discussing the News – The Uneasy Alliance of Participatory Journalists and the Critical Public (Palgrave), I conducted ethnographic research in two daily newspapers in Slovakia whose journalists could not see many good reasons to engage in comments.

Divisive political issues, including the rise of right-wing extremist parties across Europe, the refugee crisis, and a controversial Slovak referendum about the rights of gay couples, seemed to make the vitriol rise thicker and faster, leaving journalists and media managers increasingly disillusioned about their ability to create sociable spaces, let alone deliberative ones.

This is a a sentiment shared by MIT Technology Review’s then-editor Jason Pontin, in an article he titled Me and My Troll. “Why should a publisher put up with Gus or any troll? Why indulge them? What’s in it for me?” he wrote.

In fact, the question of how to handle heated polemical discussion is not new, and history and philosophy suggest potentially useful frames for structuring positive online debates.

One method is to treat the interactions as contributions, by recognizing a person who discusses the news as a contributor. I’m not the first to suggest this. The Coral Project’s own Andrew Losowsky called for news organizations to rebrand comments as contributions back in 2015, in a similar manner to the philosopher Joëlle Zask’s suggestion that participation ought to be contributory. By doing so, each participant retains the possibility of making and claiming a difference through their intervention, and they are valued for their distinctive knowledge, role or work. Saying everyone is a contributor avoids implying an equalizing of roles and statuses, but recognizes the effect participation has. We’re not all journalists, and we wouldn’t really be contributing – making a difference – if we were. Contributing is also about self-recognition of the difference one makes, and with it the responsibility we take on.

When I interviewed the journalist Tomáš Forró for my book, he characterized the way he regularly interacts with readers as polemical discussions. “Most people just pronounce their truths, they just state their world view”, he sighed. Faced with this, he doesn’t try to persuade them that they might be incorrect, but he does want them to take responsibility for their opinions. He pushes them to state “yes, I really believe this”, disarming the common tactic of presenting a personal opinion as self-evident truth.

This kind of exchange has rich historical antecedents. The Catholic philosopher Erasmus bemoaned dogmatic defenders of religious doctrine in the polemical theological debates of the Middle Ages, whom he labelled “sophists” (likening them to the sophists of ancient Greece). They were “braggarts, but above all quarrelers… who lose sight of the truth in their ardor for the dispute” (Erasmus, In Praise of Folly, 1511).

Sophist and the contemporary troll are terms that define serial polemicists, but in simultaneously denouncing them, they renew the polemic. Strangely, this polemic spiral enables a sort of truce to emerge, where adversaries can come to coexist in dissensus, this being the steady-state condition of polemical debate. A calls B to account by brandishing an accusation, but also expresses a willingness to interact; B takes responsibility for the original statement, but also acknowledges the limits of its rhetorical force. That’s a best-case scenario of course, but my observations of online discussion suggest that the tactic frequently works, especially when journalists employ it. It moves us away from an extreme polemic – two people talking past each other – to an interactive polemic which forces some kind of clarification of commitments.

It’s the state of affairs that Forró now often reckons with. And I think it’s what Pontin has accepted, maybe without realizing it. He can also polemicize in the comments – here beginning with an open declaration of disagreement (“You’re wrong”), here poking fun at Gus (“My dog, Ferdinando, could get published in Energy and Environment”).

If the communication contract that governs commenting has come to resemble a polemical truce, I don’t think we need see that as a failure. Consensus may be impossible in democracies based increasingly around difference and conflict, but finding ways to structure coexistence in dissensus is vital for the continuation of constructive conversation.


Simon Smith works at the Institute of Sociological Studies at Charles University, Prague, where he leads a research team investigating the theme Narrative construction of crisis and institutions in party politics and public policies. His new book, Discussing the News (Palgrave 2017) is about journalistic work in a participatory media environment, based on ethnographic research in two Slovak daily newspapers. Simon graduated from Cambridge with a First in Geography before completing a PhD at Bradford about the political meanings of independent cultural scenes and samizdat publications in communist Czechoslovakia.