My head is deeply buried in thesis sand today and it got me thinking. Much of my initial discussion is about conversation. Greek political nerd (because I am NOT using the word ‘rhetorician’ again in my life) Cicero reckons that conversation is the soul of democracy. This, to me, is probably a bit vague. I really fail to see how my Mum and I talking about what to do with my mail advances democracy in anyway. Others, myself included, argue that there needs to be a bit more structure around conversation for it to have any worth in a democratic context. America academic Michael Schudson shared this view. One of his arguments is the reason I’m writing this. He believes, and this is heavily paraphrased, that in order for political conversation to be meaningful, it needs to be uncomfortable, civil and participants need to be able to change their mind.
Not a lot of conversations are like this.
Uncomfortable conversations. The reason why they say you should never discuss religion, politics or sex at the dinner table. It’s uncomfortable. You don’t go to a dinner party, hand over the bottle of wine you politely brought along and open with “Abortion reform in New South Wales? Come on, guys! Pros and cons! Or euthanasia? Anyone?” This is a pretty good way not to get invited back to another dinner party. Really though, it should be at the heart of political discussion. Political issues and conversations should be uncomfortable. First of all, not everyone is going to agree on every single thing, it’s about consensus. This means discussing your viewpoint with someone who holds an opposing one. Socially, we tend to mix with people who share our values so getting out of the comfort zone to speak to someone who fundamentally disagrees with you is not necessarily fun. But necessary all the same. An example I can think of is the Murray-Darling water management. As an ex-Brisbane girl, this was never an issue I hugely engaged with, more of a vague “save the river for the fish and like, the environment, man” kind of sentiment. I’m sure though, that if I had a discussion with a farmer in south-west Queensland or rural New South Wales or Victoria, I could very easily be swayed. It would be uncomfortable because really, what right does a city girl have to voice an opinion on water management in the country? The answer: every right, but with that comes a responsibility to be informed..
Civility often goes out the window when there are differing views. I have escalated many a political argument with my partner by telling him that he sucks, or that his opinion is invalid because he has food on his face. Neither of those are true: he doesn’t suck and one should be entitled to an opinion even if one’s face is encrusted in food. The point here is that meaningful debate is difficult. It’s hard to dispute logic, it’s far simpler to disregard civility and attack the person not the argument. Ad hominem attacks are something we see all too frequently in everyday politics, mud-slinging and smear campaigns also have the added advantage of selling more newspapers than policy debate. So meaningful conversation requires an environment where civility is assured. So not at Parliament House and probably not my house either…
Finally, changing your mind. Political choices are often not so much of a choice. You vote based on who your parents vote for, or where you live, or based on how much money you earn. It is as much, if not more, of an emotional decision as a logical one. That’s what makes it especially hard to change your stance on an issue or to persuade other people. My partner and I have been together for five years and, while I think I’ve managed to sway him on maybe two talking points, he remains *shudder* a conservative voter.
It can be hard to change your mind, pollies cop a lot of flak when they do. Back flipping. But if those back flips are the result of reasonable, meaningful debate, they should probably be encouraged. The example I think of the medicinal marijuana argument. There was a story on Hack a few months back about a young man with terminal bowel cancer, marijuana was the only thing that helped him. Dan’s story prompted MP Kevin Anderson and former federal police commissioner Mick Palmer to change their stance. That’s not back flipping, that’s changing your mind based on new information and experiences. It’s being informed and compassionate, two things all politicians should be encouraged to do, even if it means deviating from party lines and, heaven forbid, ‘back flipping’.
I suppose the point of this is to point out a few things to remember when thinking, or talking, about politics. Get uncomfortable – put yourself in someone else’s shoes, keep it civil and don’t be afraid to change your mind.
Now, to somehow put this in academic-speak and multiply the word count by ten…