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Friday, 6 July 2018

People outsource their critical faculties to political parties

Most people are lazy conformists. "Groupthink" is a term invented by the great journalist and novelist George Orwell for use in his 1949 novel 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. It's being talked about more these days because of the way the media and its practitioners are finally arriving at some understanding of the way social media works. The fashionable term is now “echo chamber”. In this regard, I'm reading Guardian journalist Katharine Murphy's new book 'On Disruption’.

But unthinkingly subscribing to notions that are debated in the public sphere merely because they conform to your favourite political party's official platform is harming debate. When we're challenged we should foster progress by using our reason, rather than resorting to following opinions generated elsewhere.

Many people drink the Kool-Aid and pay obeisance to their tribe’s sacred cows. This happens on both the left and on the right. One issue I find myself often at odds with when talking with other people who like me have progressive political views, is the situation that faces Aborigines in our society. The standard narrative for some parts of the left goes that colonialism never stopped, that discrimination persists in most communities, and that the authorities are complicit in rendering Aborigines a disadvantaged minority.

The other day on Facebook I had a discussion with someone with whom I went to secondary school. He put up a post about a new TV series on SBS about Aborigines and I took exception to the premise that it was telling an “untold story”. Hundreds of serious monographs on all sorts of aspects of the frontier have been written by almost as many eminent historians in Australia, so the idea that a mere TV series could be breaking ground that had not already been paved by others in print, seemed ludicrous. I said as much.

The conversation then got a bit heated when a friend of my friend, a woman, entered the debate and took sides against me. Although she admitted that a lot of good books about the frontier had been written and published, she gave her support to our mutual friend and made comments that I felt unnecessarily disparaged my views. I made a comment in which I pointed out that most of the advances that have been made in recent generations toward Aboriginal people achieving legal parity with the rest of the population had been due to the efforts of white, Anglo-Saxon, middle class people. The woman took exception to my remarks and our mutual friend asked me not to comment on the thread any more. My friend has since unfriended me and blocked me from seeing his profile page.

The same sort of thing happens on Twitter. Debate is often curtailed when people block your account. It happened to me last year with the journalist Ben Eltham, who did it after I questioned something he had said about refugees. The internet possesses a black-and-white palette, where people either embrace what you say enthusiastically or else they reject you with equal energy. There is little grey, little that lies in-between in the heated debates that take place online every day. This kind of dynamic I find applies also with reviews that I publish, for either books or for movies. The reviews that are read most by people in the community are ones that are unambiguously enthusiastic. They can be shared without compunction. Posts that ask for an uncritical or unthinking response from the reader are prized by him or her. Negative reviews generally do very badly. Reviews that give qualified approval also don’t fare as well as ones that give unalloyed approval to the work under discussion.

The other day I wrote about the dynamic I’m talking about here. The post was titled ‘The articulation of stories and the dynamics of progress’ and it looked at the way that people embrace issues online in the same way that they might barrack for a football team. Their attachment to the cause is enthusiastic and uncritical. They think that debate is about defeating the enemy, rather than about convincing parts of it of the truth of their assertions through reasoned argument. When you block someone you prevent further discussion, which might in future take place around a completely different issue. Or you prevent seeing how in many respects your views agree with those of your one-time enemy. Blocking someone on social media is a kind of censorship that people use to limit the extent of their field of study. It limits them and it hurts the integrity of the public sphere because it loosens the ties that bind us together.

Often people conceive of a debate as a zero-sum game where the goal is to win the prize, a scarce resource that cannot readily be shared by more than one team. In reality, the prize is how to get more produce out of the earth with fewer labour inputs, while ensuring that it will continue to yield its fruits for future generations. Our short-sighted, all-or-nothing mentality often blinds us to the real goal, which is progress for all rather than mere victory for some of us. This approach promises disaster at some point in the future. Some think that fascism is already here. Hopefully, Trump will call an election in 2020.

As far as Australia’s Aborigines go, the Voice to Parliament that the Referendum Council recommended establishing in its 2017 report that would function as a megaphone for Aboriginal people who want to participate more actively in the federal legislative process isn’t guaranteed to get the support it needs to make the change required to the Constitution unless the Liberal Party supports it.

Even with the support of both parties (broadly speaking), the 'Yes' side in the marriage-equality plebiscite only got 61.6 percent of the popular vote. But that’s the sort of margin that would be required to get changes made to the constitution to bring in an indigenous “Voice to Parliament”. In the latter case, you need to have two things. One is the approval of a referendum bill by an absolute majority in both houses of Parliament. Then you also need to have approval of the bill by a referendum. This latter provision means that it must be agreed on by a majority of electors in each of a majority of the states (that is, in at least four of the six states), as well as a majority nationwide (that is, comprising voters in both states and territories).

So just banking on the Australian Labor Party backing running a referendum if it wins control of the House of Representatives in 2019 is not necessarily going to cut the mustard. Ideally, you’d want to have the Liberal Party behind the move in order to get the change over the line in the plebiscite that is required to change the Constitution. At the moment, the Liberal Party says that the Voice to Parliament would function as a third legislative chamber and won’t support it.

The 1967 referendum that changed the Constitution to enable the Parliament to make laws for Aborigines was officially supported by both parties and the relevant amendments were overwhelmingly endorsed, winning 90.77% of votes cast and carrying in all six states.

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