Sunday, April 29, 2012

Valuing the thinkers in politcal discussion

I liked this article by Mike Carlton.

I posted it on a friend's Facebook wall. A conservative-voting, but more-progressive-thinking-than-he'd-like-to-admit friend. One who has been (un)fairly critical of some of the 'scandals' surrounding the government in the last 18 months. I like to tell him he has a progressive inside waiting to burst out once he comes out of denial, which he doesn't appreciate it, but we agree on a lot of things when you get past the slimy surface of political discussion.

I liked the article because, while hardly policy-heavy, it looked beyond the surface (or headline) level judgements of the government, and noted that Julia Gillard's has actually been, at the very least a good economic manager - the media's primary measurement of government for at least the last 15 years, since reform went out of fashion. Also it has successfully implemented a good deal of legislation despite the hung parliament.

My friend dismissed it because Carlton isn't known to be balanced in his views. 'Come on!' I thought, 'that's it?? No criticism of the logic or arguements?' I just responded with a smiley face because, while we can have a strangely respectful political discussion, Facebook walls are dangerous ground for such discourse. Any nut can get involved and turn things sour, so I keep the politics to a minimum there, and save it for Twitter. I'll pursue him about it over a beer soon. I think he'll sheepishly concede a few points, so I should be mature about it in the spirit of appreciating open-mindedness.

Got me thinking though - have we just become barrackers again? The old ways of voting along family lines crumbled long ago. Although I do remember an 18 year-old arriving at a polling booth with his father, where I was handing out How-To-Vote cards for the Greens (for a friend!). His Dad instructed him to avoid us and take one from the Liberals and Family First representatives. As he walked past behind his Dad I quietly offered him one. 'Nah, I better not,' he replied. And they say we live in a democracy!

Yet swingers are the rise my friends, cynical enough about politics not to pledge their ongoing support to anyone. But just as we got wise, the mainstream media got particularly dumb. We switch more, but based on what? Policy? Scaremongering? Scandals? The Prime Minister's wardrobe?

Whatever the reasons, lots of people still tend to make up their mind about something and then stick to it. That's not to say it won't change - clearly views do change - but it takes time. Admitting you were wrong is not seen as noble but weak, inconsistent and/or an indication of unreliability, which is utterly counter-intuitive.

Was the I Can Change Your Mind About Climate Change experiment anything more than a waste of time, money and carbon emissions? Did anyone change their mind? Certainly not those involved in the show. And a massive 47% of voters in the online poll said they would never change their mind. Never. Regardless of what information comes to light. No scientist that takes themselves seriously would say that, and no human ever should. Those people may as well walk away from the debate, regardless of which side they are on, their closed-minded opinion has lost its legitimacy. I only hope many passionate Climate Change believers misguidedly voted 'No' they would never change their mind because they feared a 'Yes' result would look like a win for the skeptics. It's not. It's a (frighteningly marginal) win for reason. Anyway, chances are - and changes in the perception of Climate Change indicate - that many more than this number would actually change their mind, they just obviously don't like to admit it for fear of weakening their argument.

For the record, I believe in human-induced Climate Change, do not expect to change my mind and think environmental protection is crucial either way, but I voted 'Yes' (I would change my mind). I hope I would.

We chastise politicians who do as weakness or liars - even if you meant what you said (and the media will insist on a promise) but changed due to unforseen circumstances.

So back to Carlton and his fellow opinion piece writers, and the judgement of balance. By definition, no opinion writer is 'balanced'. They are writing their opinion. Some are more considered than others and address both sides of an issue, but all have their own values and beliefs and column inches are meant to be the space to test their ideas, and challenge the reader. Although some prefer to attract an audience by whipping up fear and frenzy.

My favourite column writers - and I would include Mike Carlton along with people like George Megalogenis and Ross Gittins - put their case intelligently and sensibly. I like Carlton because of the pinch of intelligent humour that probably riles the 'opposition'. Megalogenis is the most 'neutral', but I suspect conservatives view him as a leftie. I'd add David Marr to the list but then my apparent left-leaning view of the world becomes even starker and I can be dismissed as well!

But I'm exhausted by the old view of left and right. It's fucking outdated and childish, far too basic within a complex economic, social and environmental policy discourse. Politics is not sport where you pick your team and stick with it, your view of heroes, villians and umpiring decisions often defined by who your team is. My values define my vote, not the other way around.

And yes, I'm more likely to read articles by people who I respect, who, in turn, are likely to share my values - or have they helped shape them? I don't read Fairfax more than News Ltd press because I'm a progressive, I read it because it takes the news a little more seriously. Not enough, but more. I like MediaWatch because it exposes just how much of a mess the whole lot (commercial media) are. Again, my disappointment in the commercial media's general inability to maintain it's credibility probably shoves me into the leftie camp. So be it.

I'll read and respect columnists that take a serious view of politics, with an interest in the good of the community rather than bitter ranting, sensationalisation, old-school point-scoring or shallow reporting of polls and popularity. Michelle Grattan, for instance, seems to me to be neutral, but has little of substance to say.

I don't care who they vote for as long as they're rational, reasoned and encourage - rather than undermine - mature discussion. We should read articles of merit by people who share and challenge our values, question them equally and form a judgement. It's not easy though.

An informed electorate is the antithesis of party or ideological loyalty though. We all need to be able to think it all through and feel free to express a polite, engaging opinion without fear of being wrong. We're only human.

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