As is customary, this election year promises to feature endless arguments about the facts of any given matter – from the impact of the carbon and mineral rent resource taxes to the Howard government’s economic record and even the requirements of caretaker conventions – in an attempt to separate empirical reality from bare assertion.
Recall that the alternate-reality approach employed during the Republican campaign last year, and adopted in Australia by Tony Abbott as (in the words of Bernard Keane) ‘the philosopher-prince of the assertion-based community’ violated the old dictum that one is entitled to one’s own opinion, but not one’s own facts. A brilliant article in The Conversation in October last year, written by philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes, went further, arguing that we don’t have a right to our opinions – or, at least, that we don’t have a right to have them automatically ‘treated as serious candidates for the truth’.
Stokes noted: ‘The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds…into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse’.
Stokes is dead right: opinions that are grounded in prejudice, bias, or a refusal to engage with the factual world are worthless.
Those of us in the affluent west are surrounded by a cacophony of opinions. With the increasing volume of commentary or op-eds in newspapers, the proliferation of blogs, television panel shows, and a scrolling wall of up-to-the-minute 140-character viewpoints, we can instantly find out what people think about any given matter, and then what they think about what other people think about it. This is, depending on one’s mood and outlook, by turns a wonderful thing – a greatly expanded marketplace of ideas – or something more akin to a vast, chaotic shopping mall of What I Reckon.
There are also risks inherent in our ability to seek out only opinions with which we already agree, which allows us each to construct our own bespoke, self-reinforcing echo chamber of righteousness.
Opinions matter, and they are certainly absorbing to read and write about (and, obviously, the irony/hypocrisy of writing about this issue on a website dedicated to sharing and discussing opinions is acknowledged) but they become problematic when they are elided with information, or become invested with unwarranted authority.
In his final book Thinking the Twentieth Century, written with Timothy Snyder, the late historian Tony Judt critiqued the state of journalism in the United States and, in particular, its relationship with political power. During a discussion on the commentary on the war in Iraq (which Judt opposed), Snyder asked ‘what do many of these journalists have besides their own authority? And on what is that based aside from contact with power?’ Judt replied: ‘Most journalists…are as terrified of losing their connected status as they are of being wrong’. Judt suggested that in some cases, a writer’s ‘apparent expertise consists of the capacity to talk glibly each week about any public event in a way that readers have gotten used to thinking of as a sort of enlightened commentary’ and that ‘access to information is very carefully recalibrated as the acceptable middle ground on any given policy issue’. He emphasised the crucial importance of ‘investigative journalists…the guys who dig up dirt’ rather than elegantly placing a gloss of insight over the status quo.
Last year saw a substantial focus on the shortcomings of Australian newspapers and news sources, and 2013 promises to be no different; doubts have already been expressed about the press gallery’s ability to ask searching questions rather than repeat conventional wisdom. Recently, for instance, columnist Gay Alcorn acknowledged the shallowness of much political coverage, arguing that this situation could be fixed with ‘a culture shift and the nerve to stick with it’. Political blogger Andrew Elder had a simpler solution: ‘sack the press gallery journalists…They have shown that they do not - and cannot - tell us what we need to know’. There are those who can: one very useful aspect of the cacophony referred to above is the role played by bloggers such as Greg Jericho of Grog’s Gamut, in providing in-depth analysis of policy, rather than simply commentary or coverage of political theatre. The fifth estate is increasingly calling the mainstream media’s bluff, noting that once we pay attention to the man or woman behind the curtain, they might not be performing real wizardry after all.
Over at the Failed Estate, Mr Denmore (Jim Parker) noted last year that ‘the media no longer owns the narrative. People have always had their own responses to and interpretations of political events. But they can now express those directly and they don’t need the media to tell them what it means’. The members of the press gallery, he argued, are ‘living in a bubble of their own making…political meaning goes beyond the he said-she said and the daily horse race of Canberra’.
The authoritative-sounding commentary which emanates from such bubbles, though, has at least one virtue: it concerns, in general, the wider world. At the other end of what might be termed the opinionsphere is the realm of the relentlessly personal, where confessionals about the way we feel our feelings or live our lives take on the aura of reportage. In an excellent piece on Gawker, Hamilton Nolan noted a:
…huge appetite for first-person essays…The pages of Salon, and Slate, and Thought Catalog, and xoJane, and women’s magazines, and lowbrow-masquerading-as-highbrow publications like parts of the New York Times, and Gawker Media are absolutely overflowing with them. At their very best, they offer some amount of insight learned through experience. Mostly, they offer run of the mill voyeurism tinged with the desperation of attention addiction. For those who own the publications, they’re great—they bring in the clickety-clicks…Left unsaid in most discussions of this sort of writing is the fact that most people’s lives are not that interesting.
The personal, as second-wave feminists argued, is political. This was a powerful insight that continues to resonate and has also informed struggles against racism, homophobia and other prejudices. One can agree that the realm of the political extends beyond the ‘public’ to the ‘private’ sphere, though, while also noting that some things are still more important than others, and that there is value in thinking (and writing) about something external to the self.
This is not to argue that all journalists and bloggers ought to run as fast as possible away from acknowledging their own subjectivity, or execute torturous grammatical twists to avoid using the singular first person pronoun. A retreat to the canvas of our own experience, however, negates the possibility of presenting something broader, of contributing to understanding of the world beyond our doorstep. The tendency to confess rather than explore may even reflect a kind of despair – an abandonment of civil society, and the triumph of individualism over ideals rooted in community or solidarity.
We live in an opinion and narrative saturated world. In navigating it, we could do worse than to be both humble and cautious, weighing the opinions we encounter – our own and other people’s – and asking where they come from, why we might trust them, and why they matter.