As a conservative, I have long been opposed to the call for more conservatives on the ABC. With the pseudo-controversy around Kevin Williamson and The Atlantic, it’s worth digging into the argument a little bit deeper from a conservative perspective to see why it’s so noxious.
We can start somewhere free of controversy. I think that two reasonable people can disagree about a lot of things. Trivially, one person might want cereal for breakfast and another might want pancakes. Without getting into the politics of consumption or agriculture, we understand that some people just have preferences one way or the other. I also think that two reasonable people can disagree about big, serious things. I think two reasonable people could have a serious disagreement about transhumanism, or fully automated luxury communism, or on a universal basic income.
If we had an ideal media environment, you’d have a group of journalists whose job was to produce evidence to inform debates, and columnists who would use that evidence to craft the language that people need to make up their own minds about issues. Instead, we live in a world where both journalism and opinion writing are considered low skill jobs. Journalists try to play both sides of the division of labour, and too frequently report insane claims liberated from the earthly chains of reality. And opinion writers are rewarded for making similarly insane claims.
This sets up the conditions for the first issue of diversity in the media: the outrageous voices are privileged and given a platform, while the thoughtful, challenging voices aren’t. We get a lot of journos who went to Sydney Grammar and who cut their teeth on Honi Soit, and vanishingly few who aren’t from Sydney, or from private education backgrounds, or from sandstone university backgrounds. A lot of extremely mediocre commentary comes from Sydney; if you live in the Northern Territory, we’re never going to hear from you, no matter how good you are.
And yet it is never the call for the best voices to get a platform in the media from conservatives. Instead, it’s a call only for voices that harmonise with those that are already overrepresented. We saw this in the Kevin Williamson debate. We already knew his views. We already had lots of options to seek out misogynist, antifeminist commentary if we wanted it.
It’s the littleness of the argument that’s the most frustrating. It’s not that the views put forth by conservative writers are worthwhile, or valuable, or meritable; the argument is that organisations have an obligation to create a platform for these views. In Australia, that obligation is usually expressed in terms of fantasies about the ABC Charter; in the United States, that obligation is usually expressed in terms of a moral obligation for ‘balance’.
I’m conservative so, of course, I think there are intellectually serious conservative arguments. But I never see them presented in the media. It’s also difficult to get to the good progressive and radical arguments in the media when they’re drowned out by so much noise.
This gets us neatly to the second of the issues of diversity. The call for diversity is not a belief in the value of diversity simpliciter: it’s a call for richness. If your doctor tells you that you need more variety in your diet, replacing a few meals at McDonalds with Hungry Jacks instead is not addressing the issue. Yet this is precisely what calls for more conservatives in liberal news outlets want. Instead, readers are after substantive diversity: give us differing views that advance public debate and give us options to form our own ideas.
So why aren’t readers getting what they want? In a sense, they are. Controversy sells. The Atlantic couldn’t be happier with all the attention it’s getting. It gets to do a lot of moral posturing: ‘Look at our commitment to diversity! Look at us trying to expose our readers to ideas that will challenge them! Look at how we police the line between the acceptable and the unacceptable by firing a person who advocated for the murder of women!’
Closer to home, see also Q&A, The Drum, and the Festival of Dangerous Ideas: the point is not to have a substantive debate between intellectually serious views; the point is to stir up controversy. It suits a kind of liberal vanity: freedom of speech means we let everybody scream in the void, and we don’t ask too many questions about who gets the loudest megaphones.
This leads to the final issue: when too many public debates end this way, everybody looks bad. It is already difficult to convince many people that there are intellectually serious conservative arguments (the strawman counterarguments presented have the unfortunate habit of accurately resembling actual opinions offered by right wing trollumnists). But the show trial also undermines the argument that reasonable people can disagree, and the argument that opinion writing is worthwhile.
Substantive diversity is important, but it is important not to let people hijack the rhetoric to push further deterioration of public debate.