Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Changing The Conversation

When an aboriginal footballer is booed for performing a "war dance" that incites a crowd, the fans are accused of RACISM.
When a female politician is criticised for leadership that divides a political party, politicians are accused of MYSOGYNY.
When a same-sex couple is challenged about a lifestyle that contradicts biblical values, Christians are accused of HOMOPHOBIA.
When refugees are condemned for seeking asylum through "illegal" channels, opponents are accused of INJUSTICE.

There is no doubt that there are people who are prejudiced against other races, those who show contempt for women, some who fear homosexuals and others who oppose migrants.  Regrettably, there are attitudes and behaviours still prevalent in our society that are intended to be discriminative and divisive.  However, a conflict of values and opposing views does not automatically warrant a label that prejudges the heart of a person expressing a different worldview. 

The tone of social commentary in recent times has relegated political correctness and popular opinion to the same level of prejudice that devalues human beings who do not conform to cultural norms.  It is ironic that what is meant to promote tolerance seems to provoke the exact opposite, projecting the very same values that are deemed to be offensive.  This in no way condones discrimination on any side of an argument, but highlights the 'white elephant' of reverse discrimination that has hijacked civil debate in a society that has historically defended freedom of speech, celebrated cultural diversity and protected religious rights.

There is part a speech from one of my favourite movies, The American President, that describes well our current social and political environment in Australia:  "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the "land of the free"...We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections."

Before you are tempted to point the finger at our politicians with a resounding, "YES!", this is also reflective of how we try to win arguments through social commentary.  Shutting down different views or demonising those who express them does nothing to solve the problems we face today.  In order to change the conversation and create the platform for respectful and robust dialogue, it is worth repeating and drawing wisdom from a statement made by former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson prior to the last federal election, which I have quoted on numerous occasions: 

"We are losing the art of civil debate in our society, as we secularize...because we are losing the ability to understand the value of the other person.  Voltaire is accredited as saying, "I may disagree with you, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."  That's not the way we conduct the debate at the moment in this country or in the west.  If we don't like someone else's debate now, we demonise the person who puts the idea on the table.  Voltaire understood...that each individual ought to be valued enough for you to say let them put their idea on the table, then we'll debate that idea.  The greater the potpourri of ideas we've got in a pluralist society the better the chance we have of getting good policy out of it.  We will never get good policy in this country again until we learn how to have a civilized debate where we debate the issues and decide the case on the merits, not on, sorry to say it, popular applause."

The wisdom in this statement is applicable to any conversation that seeks to address the complex issues and engage the diversity of thought that challenges our values and beliefs as Australians.

Postscript:  See my previous thoughts on this subject in my post Civility v's Hostility written two years ago.

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