Our right to be an idiot

I have a pervasive sense of disquiet about what is happening in Australia these days, and unfortunately it becomes worse with each passing week.

I’ve commented long and often on the quality of public debate in this country. It used to be robust and intelligent. In the last 20 years debate has been dumbed down and often discouraged. Right now it’s fucking awful.

The quality of debate equates roughly with the quality of our leaders, who in most instances are shallow and often anti-intellectual, and inclined more to cheap populism and slogans than to considered debate. Thoughtful and considered discussion seems beyond many of our politicians, but it’s also convenient to steer clear from it. 

Complicit is the media in this country, which is now diabolical. Once great newspapers and paragons of the medium – such as The Age – have buckled to the pressures of the social media age and succumbed to the lures of click-bait, shallow analysis, and a critically rigorous approach only occasionally applied.

The rest of our newspapers and all but a few of our news and current affairs programs on the TV are even worse. Our politicians are rarely held to account in any meaningful way, debate is stifled (or often twisted), and many big issues of national importance hardly get an airing.

While it’s the flavour of the times, much of this is by no means an accident. Independent media exists only in pockets within Australia. With the most powerful media mogul in the world, Rupert Murdoch, owning large swathes of our media most of what is reported is curated and politically shaped to his own ends.

All of this has a trickle-down effect. Because the debate doesn’t exist at a national level it has slowly died out a cultural level also, excepting some hotly debated pockets in the community – commonly described as being ‘leftist’ by the right wing intelligentsia (a very oxymoronic category description when you consider it includes Mark Kenny, Miranda Devine and Andrew Bolt). The language of our leaders trickle-down too, and permeate our everyday language, as well as the received attitudes that go with it. Thus we now have the concept of ‘leaners’.

So, partly it’s the era we live in, and probably the same all over; but also politically directed.

I don’t comment on all the things that trouble me. I don’t have the time or will to do that. If I did it would be to chart an insidious creep to the right, a growing division between the have’s and have-nots and, most concerning, the persistent erosion of our civil liberties. This is no small thing.

I’ve commented previously about the governments metadata proposals, which have now been passed into law. I won’t go on more about that except to say that it was an evil day that happened, and something that as a people we’ll come to regret. Unsurprisingly there was little public debate about that. More surprising is that there wasn’t an uproar among the media organisations and journalists who will be most directly affected by that, except for a vocal minority. It’s just hopeless.

Something else happened over the weekend that for me encapsulates the times we live in.

On Saturday an SBS journalist tweeted some intemperate comments on his personal Twitter account about Anzac Day. They were stupid, uneducated and inappropriate comments. He copped a beating on Twitter about it, which is fair enough (including from Malcolm Turnbull, which adds a layer on contention to this story). Now they were pretty dumb comments, and offensive in their way, but no more than you might hear in a pub on a Saturday night. That should have been the end of it. It wasn’t.

The MD of SBS tweeted directly in response to this that the journalist’s comments were his own, and not shared by SBS management. Fair enough, he’s trying to distance himself from the carnage. But then the next day the news leaked out that the journalist in question had been fired because of his comments. 

There’s layers upon layers of irony in this story. It’s over-stated, but it’s part of the Anzac rhetoric that they went abroad to fight for our way of life – our democracies, our freedoms, our right to free speech. That this journalist was able to bang on about the Anzacs was theoretically testament to the struggle they made on his behalf. Whether he agrees with them or not, it’s his right to express them as long as there’s no personal vilification. Unfortunately that was turned on its head by the SBS when they fired him. 

All weekend we solemnly celebrate the Anzac tradition. I’m on board with that, though I think it’s overdone these days and has become more of a social construct than a real thing. Part of that social construct is that the Anzacs are sacred and untouchable, and anyone who speaks against them is un-Australian at the very least. In another time we might have burnt such a person at the stake for heresy, and we may yet come to that as Anzac Day becomes more holy. 

I’m troubled by this too, and see it as another sign of the trend to unconsidered emotion. We are marketed an ideal we to take as a cultural sacrament. We receive these things – all sorts of views and attitudes – and absorb them as unquestioned truth. 

This time a man has been fired for exercising his right to freedom of speech – one of the very things we celebrate the Anzacs for having preserved for us – by an organisation offended by his comments on the Anzac tradition. It’s a perverse nonsense, but once more very much in tune with the times.

SBS have defended his firing by explaining that he contravened the terms of his contract. Now there are circumstances when what you do in your own time may be so offensive that they demand dismissal. I don’t believe that’s one of those circumstances. A man is entitled to express his own opinions in his own time. Unless it’s incitement to hatred, or gross sexual or racial discrimination and abuse I think dismissal is way over the type. In this case a sit down and a reprimand – and perhaps a course of education – would have been more appropriate.

I hate to believe that the private is muffled by the professional. Shades of 1984 right there.

I think this guy is a fuckwit and blowhard, but if we start legislating against fuckwits and blowhards then we decimate society and fundamentally clear out parliament. Freedom of speech is one of the central tenets of our democracy. Start fiddling with it and more of what we have come to see as our birthright slides further off the back of the truck.

 

It’s funny that the government went so hard about freedom of speech last year, before retracting much of it when it became inconvenient. It seems to me our government and right wing commentators are gung-ho about freedom of speech as long as it accords with their politics. As soon as it goes against them – such as in this case – then they come down upon the perpetrator like a pack of feral dogs. Such as the world is today, if you’re not with us you’re against us – and then we’re very much against you.

It shouldn’t be encouraged, but everyone has the right to be an idiot. Haven’t they?

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