Public political debate has now become an endless game of Pong, where the ‘Left’ and the ‘Right’ simply expel rhetoric into public space to be rejected by the other, writes Grant Wyeth…
My parents don’t know anyone who would vote for the ALP or Greens.
My friendship and cultural circles don’t know anyone who would vote for the Coalition.
Both view those without their voting intentions as highly strange, suspicious and people to fear. The opportunities, and the desire, for conversation are non-existent.
In mainstream political discourse we talk about ‘Left’ and ‘Right’, or ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’, as political groups, hanging on to antiquated notions of consistent political ideas, but in fact it is becoming increasingly evident that these are now simply cultural groups.
We can broadly describe a culture as the behaviours and beliefs of a particular group of people. These behaviours and beliefs compound themselves as they are continually practiced. Large distinctions in cultures occur when groups are isolated and not exposed to any different influences or practices.
Both of these cultural groups are what could best be described as ‘subscription packages’; with a checklist of positions to hold in order gain membership.
For the ‘Left’ we have positions that fall under the umbrella of socially liberal and economically interventionist. For the ‘Right’ it is the binary opposite: socially conservative and economically liberal. Regardless of the outcomes they produce these are the standpoints of the tribe.
These coalitions of ideas feel consistent because everyone in the group continually reiterates them. The beliefs of the group are reinforced by the group’s beliefs. With an added constant suspicion of outsiders, any attempt to influence their positions is vigorously resisted.
The internet was meant to be the great conversation, the space where difference would converge and enlightenment would prevail. Yet it instead seems to be forming into information ghettos, where these ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ groups inhabit spaces exclusive to one another. Increasingly this is even becoming the way that we consume our mainstream news.
While news outlets have always had perspectives and agendas, we are now experiencing what is best described as the ‘Foxification’ of news. It is a model that preaches solely to the converted and strokes and manipulates their biases. In the US we have seen Fox’s tribal rival MSNBC adopt this model for the ‘progressive’ cultural group with similar success.
In Australia this is mimicked in a less extreme, but still significant, fashion by the News Ltd/Fairfax divide.
As a result public debate has now become an endless game of Pong, where these two cultural groups simply expel rhetoric into public space to be rejected by the other. The suspicion between the two cultural groups is so strong, that if one iterates a position then the other simply claims the opposite must be the truth.
Persuasive arguments aren’t worth communicating because there is little intention of them being considered. Greater comprehension or even conversion are not motives. The objective is solely about expressing one’s outrage at topic du jour.
This kind of rhetoric is designed solely to consolidate one’s position within the pack. It is a combination of conformity to the group and a desire to increase your power within it. The louder you yell, the more impassioned your indignity, the more removed you are from the other reviled group.
Social media plays an important role in highlighting this phenomenon. There is the obvious echo-chamber of following only those who are members of your tribe.
However, there is also the interesting device of changing a Facebook profile picture to indicate a voting intention, or using a Twibbon to demonstrate support for a cause. These are not intended to be a persuasive arguments, in fact there is no argument at all. The audience is their peers, an indication that you above reproach with your adherence to the team.
This firm adherence to the group is expected of each member of the group, and anyone who would stray will not be tolerated.
Former ALP President and prominent Indigenous Australian Warren Mundine is a good current example of this. It is believed that he is ‘selling out’ by working with the new conservative government on indigenous issues. Instead it is expected that he get in the trenches and throw solution-less grenades at them. The conflict between the two tribes takes priority over any potential positive results. Conflict is the oxygen that they need to survive.
Conspicuous free-market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs insistence on choosing warriors like Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen to speak at their events indicates that their intentions are combative, and not persuasive.
No other organisation looking to attract sympathisers would go anywhere near such polarising figures. These are hostile acts, roadblocks to conversation that entrench mindsets and make finding consensus increasingly difficult.
During the election campaign I had to explain to my mother that Kevin Rudd’s use of the phrase “working families” was an attempt to talk to her. As a member of a family that worked she was offended that someone not from her tribe would use a term that described her in his vision.
It was an indication of the depth of this cultural divide.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that differing political allegiances have ever simply been disagreements in the approach to problem solving. Yet the idea that we view our opposing group in this political culture as actively nefarious is highly detrimental to any problems being solved.
Grant is a freelance writer and political analyst. View his full profile here.