Who has the time to hear or read what people we’ve never met think about issues over which most of us have limited, if any, control?
And who has the energy to deal with all the emotion – particularly the anger and angst, resentment and contempt – that seems to be a prerequisite when expressing an opinion these days?
I realise these are somewhat cheeky questions to ask in a piece that appears here under the “Opinion” tab.
But a confession: while flattered to be invited to write for InQueensland, I really did have misgivings about the value of adding any more opinion to a world already crowded with them.
We can thank social media, and the Internet, for that. In the 21st century, we can all be publishers and broadcasters, potentially reaching millions in a split second. But seduced by the megaphone placed in our hands, too many have forgotten that the worth of an argument is in its substance, not the volume and vehemence with which we prosecute it.
Our public debates have devolved into veritable Punch and Judy shows whose purpose is the brawl itself, rather than to achieve any sort of constructive resolution.
They are a rolling circus of caricatures, in which we’re all pushed into familiar roles.
For example, most of us have a Grumpy Old Man in our lives. Or an Angry Feminist.
You probably know a few PC Leftie Snowflakes. And perhaps some Fascist Conservitards too.
You may even have been tagged as one of them yourself, by someone who heard half of what you were trying to say and jumped to their own conclusions.
Sometimes it’s entertaining. But nothing gets fixed when the focus is on the fight itself, rather than the resolution. Has anyone ever been convinced of the merits of an opposing argument because of the pithiness of the one-liners? Has anyone ever been denigrated or belittled into changing their minds?
Fortunately, some are beginning to wake up to the craziness, to search for a better way. The problems we’re facing – as communities, as nations and as a planet – are too important and too complex to be left to glib media pundits who prostitute their outrage for ratings, or to social media hustlers addicted to the thrill of chasing likes and shares.
In the US, for example, Better Angels, describes itself as a “national citizens’ movement to reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes.”
Jubilee Media takes a similar approach, albeit for a younger audience outside of party politics, by creating videos of young people discussing potentially incendiary topics like #MeToo, vaccination and even Middle Eastern politics. With an international community of more than five million followers, Jubilee’s vision is to generate more empathy in the world.
Now Brisbane has the chance to show Australia how it’s done, with the launch next month of The Brisbane Dialogues (TBD).
Organiser Murray Hancock admits the venture was born, in part, out of his own recognition that he was well on the way to becoming a Grumpy Old Man. In response, he started reading up on human progress, seeking antidotes to the increasing toxicity he saw in the news and discussions of mainstream and social media.
“But [for a while] this made it more difficult to communicate with others, especially younger people who have absorbed the pessimistic worldview of most media,” Hancock says. “I had created my own echo chamber of new enlightenment, optimism and conservative values, discounted as an ‘OK Boomer’ by those outside it.”
An unpleasant extended family discussion during a family trip in September led to an epiphany.
“I felt there was something deeply wrong happening and knew I had to change and act.
“I realised that my world was a microcosm of polarisation and toxic discourse. It was suddenly personal, not just ‘out there’ to be grumbled about. When I started talking to friends about it, this resonated instantly, universally, with different personal takes, philosophical, political, social, familial.”
A small group emerged, determined to address what Hancock describes as “old-fashioned intolerance and incivility on 21st-century steroids”. They formed a coalition using their skills and networks to bring together speakers of contrasting views, to have a conversation guided by principles of respect on all sides: in other words, “civil discourse”.
“Can we remember, or learn, how to conduct difficult discussions and disagree well? Can we make discourse enjoyable and enlightening again?” Hancock ponders aloud.
By way of answering, he quotes former deputy prime minister John Anderson, whose own concern about the degraded state of our national conversations prompted him to launch his own podcast to explore differing views.
“We have to do better,” Anderson says regularly. “We owe it to our children and grandchildren.”
Tickets for the launch of The Brisbane Dialogues are available here.
Disclaimer: I will be acting as MC on the night.
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