It is easy to allocate blame for our apparent entrapment in bad public policy. Tony Abbott’s truculence, disregard for reason, inflexibility and broken promises all come to mind. As does the blatant partisan stance of the Murdoch media.
Those who look for more general causes draw attention to dysfunctional party structures, an adversarial parliamentary system and sloppy journalism.
It is useful to go a little deeper than these specific manifestations, and ask why so many of us are indifferent to such problems. Why have we turned our back on Enlightenment values – those values which a century ago saw Australia take a world lead in female suffrage, decent wages, pensions and good government generally? In a country that has made such strides in mass education, how come tabloid newspapers still command any readership and how come spiteful shock-jock radio hosts hold their audiences?
Australians have always been a sceptical lot, but scepticism seems to have morphed into cynicism, and more generally a creeping atmosphere of nihilism is stripping all consideration of morality from our public debates.
One starting point is to look back to the unrest of the 1960s. To shift Wordsworth’s context, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!”. It was a revolution against the hypocrisy exhibited by society’s moral guardians, against race and sex discrimination, against colonialism, and against a pointless war. All ideas were up for grabs, all nostrums were up for question.
Into that space came the philosophy of postmodernism, a philosophy holding that there is no reality, just subjective viewpoints. Your viewpoint, my viewpoint, her viewpoint – all are equally valid. It was an easy philosophy to embrace because it required no moral references, and it dispensed with the need for reason or logic. While the hard thinkers were making the case for tolerance, respect and humility in issues of race and sex discrimination, those who embraced postmodernism took the easy path of adopting the amoral view of cultural relativism – even, in extreme cases, not objecting to practices such as selective abortion of female foetuses and genital mutilation, and considering the Holocaust to be no more than a subjective interpretation of history.
Although emanating from the “left”, postmodernism has spread its influence across the political spectrum. If there are no moral standards as reference points, then we don’t have to worry too much about what Louise Newman says about children in detention or what Tim Costello says about poker machines: Newman and Costello are entitled to their “opinions”. ABC staff interpret their charter to give balance to contrasting “views” on climate change, and leave unchallenged politicians’ most egregious lies: if government ministers say that Labor left a record deficit, or that no other country has emissions trading (both easily dismissed by reference to authoritative sources) they’re just “opinions”, not to be questioned any more than the minister’s choice of a blue tie over a red one.
And, as we all know, the quickest way to put down a political argument is to say “there are two sides to every story”, before moving on to less unsettling dinner table discussions, such as comparisons between New Zealand and South Australian Hills Sauvignon Blanc, or the noise levels of BMW and Mercedes Benz cars.
Also developing from the 1960s has been a general downplaying of the more rigorous academic disciplines, most clearly manifest in the relative fall in enrolments in science and mathematics, and also in an erosion of logical rigour in many other disciplines. Students can get through a whole high school education and university degree without exposure to the basic tools of critical thinking, such as understanding deductive logic or the rules of scientific inquiry.
When people don’t have recourse to tools of critical thinking, logically empty statements such as “I cannot guarantee there were no terrorists on that refugee boat”, or “Not all Muslims embrace the views of ISIS” come to carry meaning for the casual listener. The use of statements which are correct in logic but misleading in content is known as “sophistry” to philosophers and as “dog whistle” politics in more general parlance. John Howard was a master in sophistry and Abbott, though more gauche, follows his footsteps. Similarly, if people don’t understand the conditionality of hypotheses and the role of attempted refutation in scientific method, they are likely to believe that the question of climate change is one of great uncertainty and disagreement between experts.
Ironically, the nihilism which arose as a by-product of student radicalism in the 1960s may have made it easier for universities to drift into the world of commerce, where faculties are treated as business units, where students become customers, and where the starting salaries of graduates become the prime measure of success. The enthusiasm with which so many vice chancellors have embraced the Government’s tertiary education “reform” proposals would render C P Snow and John Henry Newman speechless.
Although the churches condemned some of the movements of the 1960s, in various ways they too have dealt themselves out of the moral debate, paving the way for nihilism.
A few religious movements, particularly in some of the fundamentalist Protestant churches, have espoused bitterly anti-Enlightenment values in relation to evolution, in literal interpretation of scripture and in reduction of morality to the ten categorical rules that guided Moses to keep his restive tribe in order.
Throw out the love of learning and reasoning that sit at the core of the Enlightenment, however, and you throw out the tools which allow us to handle complex moral problems – and most moral problems that count are complex. Good public policy is often about finding practical reconciliations of conflicting moral principles. (By contrast Australian-style politics is more about a supposed Manichean conflict between good and evil.)
The other moral distortion has come from parts of the Catholic Church and from some other religious groups, and that’s an obsession with sex, allowing concerns with sexual behaviour to crowd out almost all other moral issues. Also, as we uncover the history of political events in Spain, Portugal and Chile, we learn that people with positions of authority in the Catholic Church have been involved in terrible transgressions of human rights. More recently, revelations of sexual abuse have exposed widespread gross hypocrisy. Logically, one should distinguish between the corruption of an institutional church from its moral teachings, but that separation is a big ask for those who feel betrayed by those they have trusted.
To his credit the present Pope is trying to address wider moral issues, and there are similar movements in other faiths, but they are up against institutional inertia. In spite of separation of church and state in our constitution, the Anglican and Catholic Churches have become intertwined with government, the former through de-facto establishment in colonial times, and the latter through dependence on government support for its schools and hospitals. If we are looking for moral leadership from the church it is worth remembering that Martin Luther King’s effectiveness owed a great deal to his separation from the political establishment.
The task of confronting lies with truth, and of restoring some moral stance to public life, is a great one. There are voices – in the political sphere Bob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor, John Faulkner, Lindsay Tanner, and John Hewson come easily to mind, and undoubtedly there are many politicians working quietly behind the scenes. These people all need strong support, because their stances have been met with some of the most vile abuse imaginable.
But we cannot wait around for some messianic “leader” to take us to the promised land of a decent society, like sheep waiting for a drover and his border collie. The task of leadership does not reside solely with the people in positions of authority – indeed, those people often face constraints that limit their capacity to raise hard issues. To take one prominent illustration, it may appear to many people that Malcolm Fraser has gone through some Pauline conversion, but the more likely explanation for what looks like a change of behaviour is that he has been free of the shackles of political office for the last thirty years.
That’s why the task of moral leadership is one that falls on all of us, in our various modest but collectively effective roles.