I got purple hat, cheetah print… Gender, Fairfax, and Opinion Writing

On 13 December, the Sydney Morning Herald published an anonymous opinion piece complaining that it’s simply ‘too easy’ for children to undergo gender affirmation or reassignment.  It was a shockingly poor article for all the reasons that everybody has already pointed out.  It cites absolutely no evidence; it states things that are manifestly untrue; it will obviously encourage parents in a similar position to make these issues more fraught; and, perhaps worst of all, it was published shortly after the death of a prominent trans person in Victoria.  It was a transphobic article; there’s no debate about this.

The article is a clear demonstration of what I see as the structural problem with how opinion writing works.  On one level, we can (and should) dismiss and criticise the article as just garbage.  On another level, we can (and should) ask why this sort of thing happens regularly and what we can do to fix opinion writing.

Opinion writing faces an uphill battle at the outset.  Positivists, especially with science backgrounds, really hate opinion writing, claiming that newspapers should merely detail lists of facts and nothing more.  This claim is, of course, inane: not only is the selection of facts for print based on the subjective opinion of journalists and editors but, more importantly, the use of facts in public debate is essential to democracy.

The role of opinion writing is to show how we use facts: we disagree with each other not because one person knows more facts than another person, but because we have different ideological perspectives, different values, and different visions of how the world should be.  The role of opinion writing is to show how we can engage with each other: we can disagree constructively and recognise that intelligent, morally excellent people disagree with our views.

This gets us to a nice place: we can see that the anonymous transphobic piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald was bad opinion writing because it was not based on facts.  It does not cite any evidence beyond mere feelpinion about how kids are using gender expression to rebel (as if that’s necessarily a bad thing).

Despite this obvious weakness in the piece, former political editor for the ABC and current political editor for Nine News (which subsumed Fairfax), Chris Uhlmann, described the piece as ‘perfectly reasonable‘ and then incoherently mumbled something about Stasi.  This leaves us with a worrying thought: that senior members of Australia’s political journalism class think that opinion pieces not based on fact are ‘perfectly reasonable’.

Even if the article were based on facts, there is a deeper structural problem with the article: the lack of interlocutor.  It is not clear to what the article is responding: a vague and shadowy notion of how gender is discussed among teenagers.  There is no clear, positive account of what it is that the article is refuting.  Framed more bluntly: we have an antithesis with no thesis.

And that’s a problem.  The exposure that readers get to contemporary progressive ideas is often through the fevered imaginations of those who reactively oppose those ideas.  I have never heard the argument about ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ except through people who are absolutely certain that you must now sing ‘Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep’ or you’ll get sued.  How routinely are we exposed to ideas of multiculturalism only through the filter of how it’s ‘Gone Too Far’?

If you want the counterargument to the anonymous SMH piece, you have to go elsewhere.  You have to find somebody else’s website that will detail the factual errors in the piece.  You need to go elsewhere in the media ecosystem to find the positive arguments which the anonymous author is clunkily attempting to refute.

But note that this puts the onus on you.  If you want to get a balanced, informed view after reading the SMH, you have the task of finding the contrary views.

And this seems weird.  If the point of the news is to inform, it shouldn’t need to come with a warning at the end of the article ‘This article is missing relevant details that you will need to find elsewhere.’

This gets us to an awkward place, because too often we are presented with disagreeing views of the kind in the anonymous SMH piece and told that, to criticise the act of publishing it is to be a censor or to stifle public debate.  It’s the opposite: as we clearly see from the above analysis, it’s the publishing of pieces like this that stifle debate.  Anybody who wants to have a reasonable discussion of alternative views now has to spend time addressing the socially toxic nature of the SMH piece and mitigating the damage that it’s done.

We should go further on this point.  The reason we get anonymous nonsense like that piece in the SMH is because LGBTI views are frequently presented as a monolithically homogenous entity.  If you want to talk about issues facing the Intersex community, get somebody on who is LGBTI, even if they’re not from the ‘I’ bit.  This mode of opinion writing suppresses differences of opinion within the LGBTI community such that the ordinary consumer of political culture cannot distinguish what they think the best version of the arguments are.  So not only do we get presented with a fever dream fantasy of what the LGBTI position is, we are also encouraged to believe that it’s singular and uniform.

But attacks on these communities is varied and manifold…

The solution is to go back to basics with opinion writing.  What are we trying to achieve when we write opinion pieces and what is the best structure for that to take?  The solo hot take model is failing us.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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