Tuesday, August 9, 2011


This is not a plea for the centre ground. The 'middle' can be as wrong as the edge. But debate does need to be rational . . .

Over the past month the entire defence hierarchy – with the notable exception of the Minister himself – has turned over. All the Chiefs, the Defence Materiel Organisation's boss, the Secretary; it's been, effectively, a complete purge. A spring-clean was always scheduled for this period, but it's been prosecuted with somewhat more enthusiasm than normal.
Even though Stephen Smith may not have made all the changes he originally hoped, it appears likely this presages a new way of getting things done. The appointment of a Secretary who was at Duntroon at the same time as the Chief could, for example, prove an exciting experiment; it will also be interesting to see how effectively the military's finances are kept under control by a non-accountant and exactly how we’ll decide what new equipment we need.
These changes have already encouraged some interesting (and worthwhile) speculation. I too have opinions about what it all might mean and could, perhaps, provide some more worthwhile analysis. It would be hard, however, to do better than Jack Waterford did in this paper on the weekend (or a couple of others elsewhere). Everything is in a state of flux. It'll require time to work out exactly what has happened and how things have changed.
In the past, it was normal to wait and see what happened before pronouncing a verdict on whether something was good or bad. Today the media is increasingly being forced to issue a moral judgement on every event – immediately. Events are labelled either 'good' or 'bad', or even (we leap to use the superlative) 'wonderful' and 'evil'. Hype is generated instead of reasoned analysis. Rants are allowed, even encouraged, to occupy the space of informed opinion and reasoning. It sells.
Competition and reduced sales are placing media outlets under increasing cost pressures. Everywhere in public life the bad is driving out the good. It’s easier for business (and politicians) to search out the lowest common denominator and rush to embrace it, because instinctively everyone knows this will be acceptable. Forget the quality, just look at the cheap price! The ‘No Name’ brand may not have quite the same amount of nutrition, but buy it anyway!
Unfortunately, the downgrading of the quality of informed debate and argument can only go so far before it erodes the fundamental basis of society. Surely life – a fulfilling life, rather than just existence – is about something other than feeding our passion to consume more and more? Whatever the meaning of life might happen to be, the answer won’t be found in the latest ten-second grab from a politician or advertisement on television. Or, regrettably, even opinion columns in the paper. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying, instead of barracking mindlessly for one side or the other.
The role of the critic is not simply to condemn. It's about judgment; expressing and weighing up different considerations logically until you've reached an opinion. Unfortunately, using an ideological straitjacket prevents informed thought. It reduces us to using simplistic slogans of the type parodied so effectively by George Orwell in the novel Animal Farm. The animals are mobilised by the motto, “four legs good, two legs bad", until it drowns out any possibility of dissonant thought. Then, once they’re incapable of analysis, the dictum is changed to “four legs good, two legs better”. Solipsism triumphs.
It's no bad thing to call sloppy or mistaken thinking to account. Or to sharpen the original intention of any idea until it is better fitted to achieve its purpose, exposing the rough edges and pointing out the flaws and why it won't achieve what it set out to do. But that requires thinking and consideration, not immediately jumping to a conclusion and condemning something without being able to propose a better solution.
Although this page is titled “Opinion", this doesn't mean it should provide space for people who have fixed beliefs and are immune to reasoning. Only a brave (or stupid) person could insist blindly that everything this government does is “hopeless". Equally, it is utterly impossible to assert it’s faultless.
No matter what your political views, you don't need to try very hard to find a more egregious example of a complete stuff-up than the way Labor has dealt with the asylum seeker issue. It's not (politely) possible to point out how atrociously the government has mishandled this issue every step along the way, to the very steps of the High Court. But this is what happens when you allow polling and uninformed, knee-jerk opinions to guide the formation of policy. Equally, Tony Abbott’s repition of the phrase “stop the boats” is yet another reduction to base emotions, not a course of action. Unfortunately, bigger and better advertising campaigns are seen as the answer to every problem, from climate change onwards. It’s symptomatic of a dramatic decline in a key institution of our civil society.
The media plays a vital role in facilitating interactions and allowing people to balance ideas before coming to a conclusion. The plethora of media outlets available today seems, perversely, to be increasing divisions. They reinforce particular beliefs and exclude evidence to the contrary. The community isn’t engaging in debate in the hope of reaching a common understanding about issues. Instead our fractured media landscape appears to be reinforcing prejudice and stereotypes. The plethora of pages available on the web have turned into a babel of voices, each one screaming more loudly into the wilderness. Sadly, no one is bothering to listen. They’re all too busy shouting.
Recently Julia Gillard suggested that News Ltd might like to ask itself some “hard questions". The implication was the company was mounting a campaign against her. She then became croquettishly tongue-tied and unable to formulate a single example of wrong-doing. As her erstwhile colleague Lindsay Tanner demonstrated in his book Sideshow, politicians are happy to ride the media dragon while it’s carrying them high. It’s folly, then, for politicians feel aggrieved when the beast shrugs and shakes them off its back, dumping them in the mire. The sludge of simplistic sloganeering is toxic. It smears everyone, equally.

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