Who among us could seriously put together a credible policy platform? If you were to design a Federal Budget, aren’t there better than even odds that the country would sink into the sea by lunchtime?
Much of our political culture expects us to be experts on — or at least have an opinion about — practically every topic of public policy. The High Court found a bunch of politicians ineligible to sit in Parliament? Suddenly we all had to have views about s 44 of the Constitution and how citizenship laws of other countries operate. There was a Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation, and Financial Services Industry. We all had to have strong opinions about what Australia should do next and how quickly we should do it. The Earth is on fire — how would you solve it? Are education standards up to scratch? Should we abolish private schools? Should we raise NewStart by $75? Is $75 dollars enough? If we are going to raise the minimum wage, why aren’t we raising NewStart?
I’ve worked in a few areas of public policy and I have degrees in law that specialise on areas commonly debated in public. Even then, I am often watching performed politics where I just simply do not know what the issues are or where to start with thinking about them.
There are two ideas that follow from this. First, why are we so uncharitable towards people who disagree with us when we barely know what we’re talking about ourselves? Second, what do we need to do to improve public debate?
The first question might push us in the direction of diagnosing causes. Perhaps we believe that we’re uncharitable towards opponents because we are trained to be uncharitable. Politics is driven by ‘tribalism’ and the emotions that fuel that tribalism are the basal ones: anger, outrage, disgust.
And then perhaps we might look at the role that politicians and journalists play in public debate, where everybody is opining about everything all of the time and encouraging you to play along at home. Many of the issues with which we are engaged are extremely complex, and yet the same journos will skate across all of them with fundamentally the same lens and perspective. Similarly, prominent politicians are rewarded for reducing these complex ideas back to the usual ideological comfort food for their fans and followers.
And we might even go so far as to do some behavioural experiments to produce some tasty pop-psychology reason for our beliefs. Conservatives have this ‘disgust reflex’, you see, which progressives lack, and nobody can help their beliefs, they’re biologically driven, and that’s why debate is polarised. Except there’s no actual science behind any of that nonsense. Or maybe we could be more scientific and look at class differences in information consumption and utility. Being seen to be an informed and savvy political creature is a class signifier that distinguishes from low-information populations. This ‘being seen’ does not value actually knowing what you’re talking about, only performing like you do, thus the hostility towards people who disagree with you, because hostility is the only option when you can’t actually engage with the ideas.
I don’t know. Maybe a mix of things. What I am interested in is that this is something that people are doing with their leisure time. They’re going online, getting mad as shit about things they don’t really understand, and they are doing it as their leisure activity. And I find that fascinating. The Internet now connects us to people everywhere. We can get amazing, informed, challenging perspectives, and yet people actively seek out the absolute worst people to get rude and nude about instead. We’re not reading what will make us happier or better; we’re spending our finite time in this world hate-reading views that clearly make us worse people.
But are we chained to this cycle of outrage performance? And that’s the second question. Is gulping down thirsty mouthfuls of bile something that makes the world a better place, or could we be doing something better with our time?
We could frame this slightly differently. How many people actually know what they’re voting for when they cast their ballot at elections? Apparently ‘the economy’ (whatever that means) was one of the major issues for voters in the 2019 Federal Election. But could you honestly say that you could describe the economic policies of the major parties, and evaluate them? I sure as shit couldn’t. I imagine there’s only a handful of economists in the Commonwealth Treasury that could seriously tell you what was going on, and they didn’t give much commentary during the Election.
And if there is no way that you could possibly be sufficiently informed on the policies to vote, are you spending your time well steeping in the toxic sludge of Twitter and Facebook?
Maybe, but perhaps this is too pessimistic. I continue to be of the view that we should be promoting the views of things that we want to read instead of boosting the signal of the worst media vandals. But this requires collective action, and anybody who shares a Sky News media clip on Twitter really is a scab undermining hope for a better society. If we commit to promoting beneficial views — even, perhaps especially, views with which we disagree — then maybe we can calm down a bit about generating our own views, but instead find ourselves being shaped by the informed views of others.