Friday, 11 May 2012

Postmodernism In Action

One of my favourite line from Michael Specter's TED talk went something along the lines of "you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts". Of course being able to see the difference in one's own position can be difficult, but in terms of discourse that distinction needs to be made.

What was impressive about this article on The Drum was that it made the point by showing it in action - our former prime minister shooting down someone who had no idea what they were talking about beyond their own feeling of something being wrong. The exchange is too good not to quote fully:
Caller: Good morning.
John Laws: Okay, the Prime Minister is here.
Caller: Yes, good morning. Just a very broad question, Mr Keating, is: why does your government see the Aboriginal people as a much more equal people than the average white Australian?
Paul Keating: We don't. We see them as equal.
Caller: Well, you might say that, but all the indications are that you don't.
Paul Keating: But what's implied in your question is that you don't; you think that non-Aboriginal Australians, there ought to be discrimination in their favour against blacks.
Caller: Not... whatsoever. I... I don't say that at all. But my... myself and every person I talk to - and I'm not racist - but every person I talk to...
Paul Keating: But that's what they all say, don't they? They put these questions - they always say, "I'm not racist, but, you know, I don't believe that Aboriginal Australians ought to have a basis in equality with non-Aboriginal Australians. Well, of course, that's part of the problem.
Caller: Aren't they more equal than us at the moment, with the preferences they get?
Paul Keating: More equal? They were... I mean, it's not for me to be giving you a history lesson - they were largely dispossessed of the land they held.
Caller: There's a question over that. I think a lot of people will tell you that. You're telling us one thing...
Paul Keating: Well, if you're sitting on the title of any block of land in NSW, you can bet an Aboriginal person at some stage was dispossessed of it.
Caller: You know that for sure, do you?
Paul Keating: Of course we know it for sure!
Caller: Yeah, [inaudible].
Paul Keating: You're challenging the High Court decision, are you? You're saying the High Court got this all wrong.
Caller: No, I'm not saying that at all! I wouldn't know who was on the High Court.
Paul Keating: Well, why don't you sign off, if you don't know anything about it and you're not interested. Good bye!
Caller: Yeah, well, that's your ...
Paul Keating: No, I mean, you can't challenge these things and then say, "I don't know about them".
John Laws: Oh well, he's gone.

If only more people were willing to do that today. While it's easy to blame spineless politicians and pandering journalists for not taking a stand for facts over opinion, it's not like this phenomenon is isolated to those in power. They aren't setting a standard, they are appealing to it. It's us as citizens who need to be cognisant of the distinction, and not just tribal or reactionary in our rush to judgement.

It makes matters worse that the power of the media and authority figures also plays into discussions, that standing up for "facts" has become synonymous with defending the ideology of authorities. It's not a matter of simply looking at where the expertise lies on climate change, but now it's a matter of where the media bias lies. As Jonathan Green laments: "Five years ago we had something near to a national consensus based on unambiguous science, a consensus cynically talked down often through shorthand distortions and misrepresentations pitched at the uninformed." The scientific consensus is still there, but support of the science among politicians reflects ideological lines. Something has gone horribly wrong!

There's a certain irony in that as a society we're equipped with more knowledge, more access to that knowledge, and more ways to gain knowledge, that we're in a situation that seems a practical application of postmodernist ideas about truth. It's not just that we're ignorant, we're not required to hold to any higher aspiration. "It's my belief" has somehow become a respectable conversation stopper, and attacking the media spin or personal biases as if attacking the argument has become an acceptable strategy. When there are right and wrong answers, or at the very least right and wrong approaches, then "it's my belief" shouldn't be left alone, nor pandered to.

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