In the red corner, Prof Margaret Somerville, a professor of law and bioethicist. In the blue corner, Nikki Gemmell, a columnist and author (mainly of the fluff-piece for Baby Boomers variety). ABC’s Q&A thought that this would result in a constructive discussion about euthanasia. It didn’t.
It is worth exploring why it all went wrong, because it reveals something about our intuitions about the role of experts in public debate.
I should explain where I’m coming from. I am extremely lucky and enjoy an extremely privileged life. I regularly enjoy the opportunity to talk to some of the most incredible people in Australia. I’ve had coffees with people who radically changed Australia’s society, and had the most incredible lunch with a former High Court judge.
At the end of these exchanges, I wonder why these people stay so far away from public debate. Q&A last week gave me a good glimpse into why. After Somerville tried to explain a counterintuitive concept about the value of human life — it has a social value that goes beyond the value to the individual — a member of the Q&A audience yelled ‘Bullshit’ at her. Instead of thinking that there was anything wrong with the exchange, the host laughed and the ABC replayed it during the week as an advertisement for people to ‘catch up’ on iView.
I want better quality public debate in Australia. I think — perhaps wrongly — that the people to do that are academics and eminent people. But why would they participate when the ABC is clearly structuring public debate like a blood sport?
You might not agree with Somerville — I don’t — but she’s not stupid and she’s not advancing a clearly wrong thesis. Nikki Gemmell, on the other hand, is stupid and was advancing a nonsense line of argument. The part that makes this weird is that I completely support euthanasia.
Where this became obvious was when Tony Jones asked both interlocutors to explain the argument of the other person. Somerville had absolutely no difficulty doing this, but Gemmell did not get even within the ballpark of Somerville’s argument.
This gets us neatly to the second problem of political debate: not all people are equally equipped to engage. Gemmell was not equipped to engage in the debate because she’s a peddler of anecdotes and bellyfeel. She feels things really, really strongly and that, it seems, gives her licence to ignore alternative points of view.
Part of the problem is that public debate doesn’t really give people an opportunity to engage with different perspectives. If an alternative point of view is presented, it is usually for purposes of outrage and drama. The more opportunity there is for outrage and drama, the less likely you are to hear credible arguments.
The euthanasia debate is a very good example of this. Most pro-euthanasia advocates simply do not know what the alternative positions are, dismissing them all as religious woo-woo. The abortion debate is similarly afflicted to the extent that the best pro-life advocates routinely trounce the high profile pro-choice campaigners. We see similar problems in the sex industry debates, the gender policy space, and the national security discussions (with the data retention laws being the funniest of these).
It is a truism that liberals do not understand conservatives, but it might not be the liberals fault. Where would you turn for good quality argument? If you want experts, they have to be willing to subject themselves to the blood sport arena of public debate. Far easier to have quiet discussions with elites behind closed doors.
And this is all without touching the tricky subject of the reactionary aspect of liberal rhetoric.
Gemmell found herself completely outgunned by Somerville. She didn’t understand Somerville’s argument and had nothing credible in her toolkit to prepare a response.
But Q&A does this almost routinely. In the same episode, Penny Wong wiped the panel away when it came to Syria. There was nobody on the panel who was even close to the same calibre. Part of the reason is that Senator Wong is the shadow Foreign Minister and it is her responsibility to stay informed. But mostly it was because of her skillset as a person: she listens to arguments, finds the weakness, and just keeps punching on that weak spot (sometimes to the point of trolling). Her weakness is entirely to do with her job: she’s constrained by the reality of contemporary politics and so can’t unleash her authentic beliefs about issues (particularly moral issues).
So why waste everybody’s time having Nikki Gemmell and Billy Bragg try to debate the issue with her? They were never, ever going to say anything as remotely interesting or as insightful.
Ideally, Mitch Fifield would have stepped up to the plate to provide an equal but opposite force to the conversation but… well… it’s Mitch Fifield.
The puzzle of Q&A is that the panellists are never comfortable saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘That’s not my area’ or ‘I’m not an expert, but what I do know leads me to think…’ or ‘Reasonable, intelligent, and morally excellent people might disagree with me on this, but I think…’ Nikki Gemmell is not an expert on anything and Billy Bragg is a musician. Panellists don’t seem particularly interested in convincing anybody. When was the last time anybody listened to anything on Q&A and changed their mind about a topic?
Having Somerville on the panel squandered a really great opportunity to have an entertaining and constructive debate about euthanasia, advancing the public discussion into some of the trickier areas on the fringes. Instead, it deteriorated into abuse and waffle.