What is the problem with contemporary political debate?
There might not be a single, simple answer to this question. It could be a variety of things — some of which might be framed in several different ways — depending on what you think the purpose of political debate is. For my part, I think the problem lurks in the Outrage Economy. People don’t want to feel stupid, so public ideas have to protect the psychic construction of the self as intelligent(/commonsensical), savvy, and entitled to their opinion. So instead of having public debates where people engage with each other, we have public events where one party tries to confirm the prejudices of the audience while the other tries to outrage the audience. Because outrage is profitable, the cycle continues.
There’s no way for a guy to not think like a guy. We’ve been socialised to do it. Feminism requires non-guy thinking. It’s the external critique to show us that the things we think are ‘normal’ or ‘obvious’ or ‘default rational’ aren’t. That critique, that discourse, can’t happen if we’re on both sides of the fence. […] Guys can’t be feminists. Not really, at least, because merely by interacting with the world, we’re taking advantage of all the privileges we don’t need to acknowledge. We won’t understand what it’s like to be women and, frankly, the guys who describe themselves as feminists are sort of pretending that they do.
The word ‘feminist’ occupies a strange space in (male) popular language, along with ‘communist’ and ‘socialist’. It’s a pejorative. Feminists are those transgressive individuals who don’t really fit into (male) society and are a nuisance and you need to be careful what you say around them or you’ll get sued.
Stepping around the feminist minefield that stops academics, politicians and everyday men from saying what they really think, this research says what every man is thinking. Through their words and perceptions.
It is unsurprising that many people do not feel comfortable self-identifying as feminist. If the goal in life is to be social, happy, and loved by a guy, what incentive is there to make people suspect that you’re disruptive and threatening to men?
This is a shame because there’s no reason for open letters to be like this. As you know, I’m a fan of politics as a conversation between people who disagree but like each other as people. I want to see people who disagree on an issue tackle and explore issues together, rather than just having a weekly opportunity to tear each other apart.
Less Henderson v Marr and more Margaret and David, essentially.
On reflexion, I guess there’s no reason why an open letter format couldn’t be used in this way. Two intelligent people have a disagreement about an issue via open letter such that others look on and see what parts of the two positions they like and which parts they don’t. Further, it’s a good way to expand on ideas too complicated for the 140-character format of Twitter. This isn’t to be disparaging of Twitter — I think its limitations cause people to think about how communicating more succinctly (‘Had I had more time, I’d have written a shorter letter’, said Circero. Also captured by Shakespeare in Hamlet: ‘Brevity is […] wit’) — but some subjects require a bigger space.
Before I launch into a lengthy exploration of our conversation on Twitter — about my conception of a ‘good conservative’ (which I have rather pretentiously and indulgently titled ‘Civilitatas Optimatum’, the Political Philosophy of the Elites) — it would be vulgar and ugly of me not to congratulate you on your exceptional coverage of the Royal Commission into Child Abuse. Your reporting of this issue has been sensitive, intelligent, and moving. I know that I would not have the personal strength to cope with these hearings and I am in awe of your capacity to do so. If there were any justice, you would walk home with a sack full of awards for those articles.
My third in this glorious series of ‘Things I’d like to see in the media’ is entirely out of left field. I want artistically interesting political cartoons.
I know it’s somewhat expected of me as a conservative to say that everything was better in the 1800s or whatever, but when was the last time you saw a political cartoon in Australia that wasn’t a hastily drawn, vaguely sketchy affair?
If you can’t read the text in the cartoon here, Disraeli is scribbling on the wall ‘Libberals 368. Torys 290. Makes Tory majority 25.’ The police officer says: ‘Now, then, youngster. You’ve no call to be chalking that wall, and if you must do a sum, you might as well do it right!’
Following on from yesterday’s post about wanting to see more journalists acting as the audience’s avatar rather than as a hostile pseudo-expert, today’s ‘Things I’d Like to See in the Media’ entry is somewhat difficult — and almost counterintuitive — to explain. I want to see public intellectuals engaged in debates where they advocate positions contrary to their usual.
I am not convinced that most of our opinion writers actually understand the positions they’re arguing against. This was certainly true of any person who used the phrase ‘race to the bottom’ with reference to the major parties’ asylum seeker policies. Both ‘sides’ of politics are equally guilty; there is simply too much reward for misrepresenting your political opponents’ argument.
We also have a culture where we are encouraged to reject unconditionally and uncritically any arguments that don’t suit our political position. The only valid positions are the ones that are compatible with our intuitions. Just as two people could not come to different correct answers to the question ‘Is there a largest prime number?’, the Laws of Rationality demand concurrence in political, social, and cultural questions.
Over the next few days, I’m writing up these shorter posts about things that I really wished were actually things in the media. Should it so happen that a wealthy philanthropist likes the sound of any of these and would like to bankroll them, you can contact me through my ‘about’ page.
One of my key arguments is about the importance of opinion writers. They — like ethicists and legal theorists — have the task of putting into language the intuitions of non-experts. If successful, non-experts will have better tools with which to express their own views.
The invisible hand likes to interfere and so opinion writers (by and large) are not necessarily successful if they are clever or insightful. They are successful if they generate a lot of traffic, either in the form of newspapers sold or views of their website. Thus, we have the foundation for the Outrage Economy. Not only do we share excellent pieces of writing with which we agree, but we feel the need to share things which offend us so that we can add our condemnation.
The invisible hand affects opinion writers in another disturbing way: opinion writers need to produce content on a wide variety of subjects, and thus there is an incentive to opine beyond the capacity and knowledge of the writer. Thus we get writers who one moment are experts on asylum seeker issues before turning rapidly to the carbon tax, and then to foreign affairs, &c., &c., &c. Far from being polymath foxes, they run the risk of becoming ‘Professors of Everythingology’.
It would benefit public debate if Australian opinion writers were more familiar with Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism:
Be sure your self and your own Reach to know.
How far your Genius, Taste, and Learning go;
Launch not beyond your Depth, but be discreet,
And mark that Point where Sense and Dulness meet.
Pope’s essay contains the core idea of what I’d like to see in the media: journalists who transcend their insecurities and have made peace with their ignorance.
Over on AusOpinion, Preston Towers suggests a new political party called ‘The Link’ (link broken):
The Link would be a wholly more positive and welcoming name for a new party with a new approach to advocating a progressive line of thought.
The policies of The Link would be unashamedly “leftist” and be unfettered by the compromises and pragmatism that parties like the Greens and the ALP have had to negotiate over the past few years. I can’t imagine The Link would ever go into a coalition with a Major Party in the way the Greens have in Canberra and Tasmania. That would help their policy purity considerably. [Source]
‘Unfettered’ by ‘compromises and pragmatism’. Right. Because that’s what we need, yet another party ‘unfettered’ by ‘compromises and pragmatism’. Over on Twitter, he qualifies the merit of his new party:
But within this short sketch of a proposal is a problem that reflects broader issues within Australian politics. What does it mean to be ‘unashamedly “leftist”‘?
But could a ballot be used to promote and communicate a sense of unity and stability within the ALP? Yes. […] The solution is to hold a ballot where the candidates ‘campaign’ for each other, rather than for themselves. Ordinary ballots have candidates striving to ‘win’ by promoting themselves and tearing down opponents. A ballot could instead have the message: ‘The ALP is overflowing with leadership talent. Here are three candidates that we think are excellent. Regardless of which is picked by the ALP membership, we will have a leader better than our political opponents. We believe this so much that our candidates will promote the alternative candidates rather than themselves.’
Since then, we’ve had the leadership ‘debate’ where the candidates, Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese, have emphasised that the competition will be about policies and not personalities.
This completely misses the point of leadership debates.
The result has been a publicly civilised (though privately less so) conversation between two people who are struggling to show any sort of difference, any sort of disagreement, or any point of distinction from the other candidate. There has been some pressure — and, certainly, enough opinion writers have been braying for it — for the candidates to talk about differences in policies and opinions. The debate is slowly shifting into this area, with both candidates starting to discuss various quota systems and even asylum seeker policy.
But should a party’s policies be a discretionary matter for the leader? Does the ALP want a system where its leaders start arguing that they’ve got a ‘mandate’ to pursue a particular policy? Isn’t this one of the reasons we all criticised Rudd?
It increasingly looks like the ALP isn’t learning the lessons of the past six years. The key question is simple to frame: ‘How was it possible for the ALP to achieve a series of significant wins and yet be so thoroughly reviled by the voting public?’
The fashion of the moment among opinion writers and bloggers is to declare everything ‘a complicated issue’. I sometimes wonder if it leads on from policy makers in the 1980s and ’90s declaring everything to be a ‘wicked problem’.
This unwillingness to sharpen our analytic tools to concentrate on one aspect of the problem means that we’re not really discussing the issue at all. The case of the ALP’s last stint at government is a case in point. Nobody’s really discussing what went so hideously wrong beyond vague platitudes about ‘talking about [themselves]’, ‘leadership tensions’, and ‘Murdoch press! The Murdoch Press is so bad!’
We should take the Mad Hatter’s advice and simply begin at the start then come through until we get to the end. With this idea in mind, let’s start with ministries.