Tuesday, 19 June 2012

‘Some ladies make better cakes’: on the manufacturing of public debate

‘... we know that all men are not created equal – in the sense that some men are smarter than others, some have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money, some ladies make better cakes...’
- Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

We live in an adversarial age. Everything, it seems, is being contested. We are surrounded by ‘debates’ between sceptics and believers, bleeding hearts and economic rationalists, between Palmer and Swann, Pell and Dawkins. Some might attribute this to the pervasive effect of postmodernism, and the way in which it redefined how we view the truth of things, but I don’t think too many serious-minded thinkers give postmodernism as much credit as that anymore (certainly not outside of the academy, and certainly not since postmodernism’s heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s).
What I think we are dealing with, instead, is a mass media infatuated with circumscribing public debate in such a way that it becomes a boxing match – the red corner vs. the blue corner. Everything is permitted its flipside, its opposite (though rarely equal) reaction. The effect of this state of affairs has been to corrode the character and quality of public debate in Australia. We know that (most evidently in the US) the climate change ‘debate’ has been warped by the commercial interests of the oil and motor industries and, indeed, in North America by Washington itself.
In Australia, the poisonous influence of this kind of self-serving, anti-intellectual debate-mongering has been more insidious though no less effective in confusing important issues. Clive Hamilton, in a marvellous essay for the 200th edition of Overland, argued that the ABC’s ‘balanced’ coverage of the climate change ‘debate’ is, in actuality, hopelessly biased because it repeatedly gives seemingly equal weight to utterly unequal viewpoints.
In early 2010, two prominent players in the climate change ‘debate’ visited Australia – the denialist Christopher Monckton, and the climate scientist James Hansen. It was Monckton – a non-scientist and demonstrated fraud – who received more coverage on the ABC than Hansen, the world expert. ‘... [a] reflection,’ Hamilton argued, ‘on the meaning of bias and balance confirms that equal exposure for Monckton and Hansen would have been profoundly biased. It is true that Monckton provided greater entertainment value – what he lacks in scientific credentials he more than makes up for in showmanship – but when did the ABC decide to privilege laughs over truth in matters of public importance?’
Somewhere between 2  and 5% of relevant scientists do not support the view that anthropogenic climate change is occurring. I am not arguing (and nor was Clive Hamilton) that these handful of contrarians should be ignored or silenced.  What I do say is that mainstream media organisations such as the ABC have a responsibility to acknowledge that such points of view belong to a fringe and do not reflect the true character of the climate change issue, namely that there is a broad scientific consensus backed by a wealth of empirical, non-partisan data and a growing body of peer-reviewed research.
If anything, I think Hamilton was soft on the ABC in his essay. More than simply prioritising entertainment over information in its presentation of the news, the ABC in its coverage of climate change has degraded science by consistently allowing an unempirical and unrepresentative point of view to muddy the waters of an important scientific issue the public already find challenging. What, I wonder, can we expect from Our ABC in the future? Less, perhaps, from scientists, academics and experts and more from UFO fanciers, scientologists and water diviners. Perhaps every story with a technical or scientific dimension will be accompanied by the ramblings of crankish contrarians like Monckton, every item which references the moon landing featuring an interview with a man in an anorak who thinks it was all filmed on a Hollywood soundstage, every program on human evolution followed by a special broadcast from Tom Cruise live aboard the Freewinds.                  
[Interestingly, the ABC came under fire just last week after one of its journalists, economics reporter Stephen Long, accused the Coalition’s Scott Morrison of promoting an ‘essentially racist’ view on asylum seekers on The Drum. Steve Cannane, the host of The Drum, subsequently issued an apology to Morrison after a blog post by News Limited’s Andrew Bolt. Responding to a Crikey inquiry on the furore, ABC head honcho Mark Scott said that his advice to ABC journalists was this: ‘Provide insight and analysis where you can and when you can’t, don’t.’
What ABC journalists should and should not be allowed to say is, in some ways, a separate issue to the one I’m concerned with here but fundamentally the problem is the same: the corruption of news by opinion (which, of course, the ABC’s own charter forbids). Surely it is incumbent on the national broadcaster to always clearly differentiate news and commentary, whether or not ABC journalists are the ones under the spotlight?]
What, do we suppose, are the features of a debate? I think this is an important question, rarely considered when all that matters is the perpetuation of violent discord between two parties. If a debate consists of anything more, then it is surely argument, in the sense of the construction of one or more points of view which have some social, political, scientific or other claim to validity. It’s for this reason I think the current marriage equality ‘debate’ in Australia is a farce, and one of the most outstanding examples of the infantilisation of the public discussion in this country.
There are many good reasons to support gay marriage – social, economic, humanitarian – and, frankly, not very many good ones to oppose it. Julia Gillard is among the minority of Australians who do not believe men should be able to marry other men, and women women. Her argument? Well, she doesn’t really have one. Like many who oppose marriage equality, about as much as Gillard is able to say on the matter is that she thinks marriage should be between a man and a woman. Apparently she is respected for this – for being ‘honest’ about what she believes – but for the endless repetition of this meaningless statement she deserves nothing but contempt. It is a non-position, with no substance except an utterly offensive subtext: that heterosexual couples are to be preferred to homosexual ones.
In place of a policy of support for a change in legislation most Australians want to see happen, the Prime Minister instead chooses to faff about with a conscience vote and would have the Leader of the Opposition do the same. In my opinion, Gillard’s position not only fans the flames of a ‘debate’ that is not worth having, it opens the door to another clutch of vociferous and sinister marginal interest groups. The cesspit that is the Australian Christian Lobby has led the anti-marriage equality canter with bizarre tenacity. A report in the Brisbane Times last week suggested that the ACL has produced five times as many press releases and media mentions on LGBT issues than on anything else. That the ACL believe it is five times more important to lobby for their idiotic and anti-historical faith in the sanctity of the nuclear family than to discuss issues like poverty, unemployment and education is evidence enough that their views on marriage equality have no legitimacy. They are neither morally nor intellectually equipped to chair a ‘debate’ on the issue, let alone take part in one.
I’m not convinced that Gillard’s position on marriage equality has been dictated by the ACL and its loathsome kin; more likely, like so much government policy, it’s a question of political expediency. There’s no doubt in my mind, however, that the perpetuation of this phony ‘debate’ does little to quell the homophobic fervour of some sections of the anti-marriage equality fringe. What most Australians would wish for, I imagine, is not more discussion – whether vitriolic or fence-sitting in nature – but more reason, more common sense and more facts. If a high school debating team held Gillard’s position on marriage equality it would lose, just as it would lose if it presented Christopher Monckton’s views on climate change as being equal with those of a leading scientist in the field.
It is not the stifling of discussion (which I most certainly do not advocate, though will probably be accused of) that we should fear – it is the transformation of public debate, by our politicians and journalists, into mere spectacle and flimflammery. (The Dawkins and Pell episode of Q & A I mentioned at the top of this post is a case in point, a ludicrous bout between a featherweight and a heavyweight which succeeded only in illustrating the futility of presenting two unequal points of view as though they were on some kind of level pegging. The absurdity of this reached its zenith when host Tony Jones described Pell, with an apparently straight face, as an expert on the afterlife as though this was in some way equivalent to Dawkin’s status as an expert on evolutionary biology).  

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