Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

We’ve got to install microwave ovens… Don’t talk about politics with your family at Christmas

The average person does not care about politics. As I’ve argued at length before, our society actively encourages people not to think of themselves as political animals. What we do is normal, natural, and necessary: political people are ideological, woke, extreme, and maybe their ideas work in theory but not in practice.

I’ve also argued that journalists don’t understand this problem because their professional identity encourages a self-image of being (somehow) apolitical. They achieve this identity in a few ways: two examples are false balance (where views are covered by giving a platform to two opposing views, regardless of the individual merits of each view, as complained about by Greg Jericho on Meanjin), and false objectivity (where a political view is presented as being apolitical by claiming it’s simply a scientific, economic, or engineering fact, as exemplified by Greg Jericho most days of the week on Twitter).

But there’s another game that journos play, usually after some extremely odd result occurs within the democratic system: ‘If you want politics to get better,’ they say, ‘Talk to somebody with different political views and convince them.

It’s a variation on false balance.  Silos, you see, are the problem with society.  Too many silos.  And the way you make sure you break down silos is to have rational discussions with people whose views disagree with your own, regardless of how rational their views are.

Or… and this is the most important bit… how rational your views are.

I think climate change is real and is exacerbated by human activities.  Why do I think it?  No idea.  If you asked me to explain the science of global warming, I could not.  If I got into an argument with somebody about global warming and they said, ‘Actually, I’m a scientist and carbon dioxide does not contribute to global warming because [insert science nonsense here].’  I would not believe them.  Why?  Because I have no way of engaging with them on the science gumph to work out if they’re telling the truth.

The only — only! — card I have in my deck when I stray into discussions about climate change with my family is to remind everybody that journalists don’t know what they’re talking about, so anything they’ve read in the media about how climate change isn’t real is probably wrong or confused.  And then I tell one of my many stories about how journalists got things wildly wrong and we all have a much nicer conversation.

Last Christmas, I gave my grandmother — who is quite racist, let’s be honest — a copy of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu.  She loved it.  It challenged her views about Indigenous society and it actually changed her understanding of contemporary issues.  So it was a bit of a shock, a few weeks ago, to receive an e-mail from her saying that she was really disappointed to read that Bruce Pascoe wasn’t actually Indigenous…

Keith Windschuttle had published an article in Quadrant calling Pascoe’s identity into question, then other News Corp columnists did the same.  My grandmother is not a regular reader of Quadrant; the article was sent to her by a friend who was.

For journalists to claim that we should ‘talk across the aisle’ with people whose political views are different from our own misses the bigger point: journalists are the key vector of misinformation.  Here I was having to correct information being produced by ostensibly serious media outlets. Why?

It is openly disgusting that journalists should shift the burden that their industry creates on to individuals who want ‘to make a difference’. Openly disgusting. If we want a more informed, healthier democracy, we need to take a serious look at our media industry and ask why it’s failing us so routinely.

My views on climate change are not sophisticated.  But whose are?  Am I really approaching the discussion of climate change better armed than the person who absorbs the same media content and, instead, chooses to believe what they read?  I have no expertise on the issue, but neither do the journalists who keep pumping out denialist noise.  So why is it my responsibility ‘to break down the silo’ when journalists are doing their level best to create sham silos?

There’s a bigger debate about what we can all do to create a better political environment, but we should never forget that there are some people in our ecosystem who have significantly more power to shape public debate than others and who persistently fail to do so. We should never forget the economics of the media industry and the lack of incentive to provide accurate, informed content over sensationalist spin (and this applies to absolutely every media outlet across the political spectrum). And we should always remember that the most promoted rhetoric about democratic norms are those which best suit the powerful: there’s a reason Americans are well-versed in the First Amendment (freedom of the Press) but struggle to recall the Eighth Amendment (no excessive bail, fines, or cruel and unusual punishments).


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