What has been going on with opinion - or, rather the free expression of it - in Australia over the last 20 years? All the tools were there to allow a veritable flowering of the expression of diverse opinion, but, curiously, we have seen instead its curtailment. This has been happening not only here, but in the whole of the Western world. What evidence do we have of this? Why is it happening? What might be the consequences?
Australia tends to be a follower rather than a setter of trends, and many of the ideas we see emerging from our universities and other institutions have their origins in eg. Britain, the United States, and Canada. Even with our national propensity for 'taking the piss', Australia has proven a fertile ground for the growth of one of these trends - the craven fear of causing offence.
About 20 years ago, we were suddenly perplexed to be confronted with the idea that our cherished tradition of broadcasting Christmas carols might offend the non-Christians in our community. Instead of dismissing this as an absurdity ('Whatever will they think of next"!) we should have heeded it as a warning that causing offence was soon to become an offence, with serious ramifications for the free expression of opinion.
The late, great cartoonist, Bill Leak, was to discover this when he penned a rather sad caricature depicting the dysfunction in some Aboriginal communities. The howls of outrage came, not so much from Aboriginals as from other people offended on their behalf. But it didn't end there. His life was actually threatened when he dared to make fun of Islamist extremists. Making fun is, of course, what cartoonists do, but in what turned out to be his final speech before his tragic death, he lamented how much harder his job had become. Taking a serious political issue and exaggerating it to the point of absurdity is almost impossible if the ideas politicians and bureaucrats come up with are absurd to start with.
Bettina Arndt, that well-credentialed clinical psychologist and researcher, with a life-time of experience in her field dared to question the perceived orthodoxy that university campuses are dangerous places for women, where rapists lurk around every corner. Knowing full well that research does not support this hypothesis, she has been a lone-warrior in taking her argument right up to the feminists on the radical left who have peddled it. A more dangerous place, apparently, is in the path of the angry mobs who hurl invective at her for simply stating a contrary view. More regrettable, though, is the timid attitude of the universities which have caved in to the radicals and try in every way to prevent her putting forward her argument. As well as questioning their ethics, one might also question the intelligence of these places of learning, because they derive a large part of their revenue from rich overseas fee-paying students who would desert them in droves if they believed Australian campuses to be dangerous places for young women.
One could go on listing absurdities that have turned out to threaten the free expression of opinion eg. The incident where three QUT students were hauled up before the Human Rights Commission for posting a comment on Facebook about the absurd idea of racially segregated computer labs at their university. The conciliation process failed and they ended up in the Federal Circuit Court where their accuser alleged they had breached Section 18C of the racial Discrimination Act. Although the case was eventually dismissed, its ramifications remain, with one of the students abandoning his career as a teacher because of the racism slur.This is not to mention the very vexed and serious issues of climate change and coal-fired power eg. where we need a high level open and sane debate because our very economic future will depend on its outcome.
But where has all this come from? Why has it managed to gain so much traction in our free and open society? Is it simply that the Left is winning the cultural war and not showing the Centre Right the same sort of courtesy of hearing out their arguments that was once accorded them in our institutions? Or is it vastly more complex than that?
It's possible to get the impression that we are 'dumbing down' as a nation, that there is a sort of 'anti-intellectualism' at play. Issues have to be reduced to the most simplistic terms for most of us to apprehend. We then become prey to what Orwell called 'the power of myths to suppress rational thought' and start substituting high-sounding slogans for real debate. The language we use is becoming increasingly Orwellian too – 'climate sceptics' have now become 'climate deniers'. All this would scare the bejesus out of any half intelligent reader of Orwell, but, would you believe, the kids actually study 1984 and Animal Farm in school these days. What is it that they don't get?
Other weird contradictions abound and words seem to have lost their meanings. We celebrate 'diversity' yet apparently not diversity of opinion. Years ago, Helen Reddy sang, 'I am woman hear me roar' yet the #Me Too movement threatens to reduce women to delicate, hot-house creatures who might wilt at an inappropriate gesture or remark by a male.
Just when communication technology makes possible a growing global sense of community, what Noel Pearson has called 'identity fundamentalism' has driven us into separate, warring tribes, 'where people focus on one layer of their identity to the exclusion of all others'.
It is a valuable source of information and communication, but the internet is also patrolled by rival gangs who seek to intimidate each other under cover of anonymity. What Leak called 'the scrawls on the toilet door of social media' can result in the victimisation of innocent people, with often tragic results.
Ours is becoming an ugly world, and if we had wanted to set up an environment ripe for authoritarian or totalitarian rule, we could not have done a better job of it.