As a former state moderator of the Presbyterian Church, it was with a touch of sadness that I read a column in The Weekend Australian by that celebrated academic, media commentator and world champion debater, Peter Van Onselen. Here he was again criticising a large proportion of middle Australia for exercising independent judgment that did not accord with his most cherished beliefs on sexuality and the redefinition of marriage.
I still don’t understand why he delights to poke thousands of people in the eye for refusing to bow to political correctness and vote for same-sex marriage. By Sunday night, some thirty-six hours later, 832 people had reacted to the article, with more than 90 per cent of them affronted by his elitist disdain for Tony Abbott and his battalions of deplorables. The audacity of them!
Then, on reflection, I remembered that Van Onselen had been educated at one of our church schools–which, incidentally, is an outstanding institution–and that perhaps we owe him an apology of sorts. Why, you may ask? Well, it looks like he missed some important classes in Bible interpretation, socialisation, and logic, to mention some of the important ingredients missing from his Saturday column. I know our schools take a real pride in looking after every student, but I guess there are some who will always slip through the cracks. If he is one of them, I offer a humble apology. Mind you, I don’t think we should have to accept final responsibility for his rather elementary missteps in advancing an argument.
His first significant slip has been in the theological area. Apparently, according to him, anyone opposed to same-sex marriage is a “religious literalist who ignores Jesus’ broader inclusive teachings.” Just what these ‘broader’ and more ‘inclusive teachings’ of Jesus are, Van Onselen never says. To quote from The Castle, “Maybe it’s got to do with Mabo, or it’s just the vibe?” I’ve been reading through the four Gospels searching for this mystery passage. Was it perhaps where Christ says in Matthew 7:13-14:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
On second thoughts, that can’t be the one because it makes a distinction between the broad and the narrow way. Unfortunately, it seems like Van Onselen’s theology seems to have more in common with the current zeitgeist of twenty-first century religious pluralism than anything that Jesus said.
The second slip that Van Onselen makes is a social one. A chap called “William,” who incidentally scored 144 likes in the comments section, summed up the problem perfectly. “It’s amazing, isn’t it, how a prominent media personality and university teacher can still come across like a smug, spotty activist?”
Sometimes, but not always, people develop a sense of elitism through their education. I certainly hope it wasn’t with us. Presbyterians are generally very suspicious of elites. So, when Van Onselen says, “None of us expected Australians to seek to have their say so actively,” what on earth was he thinking? Does he honestly believe that all we ‘deplorables’ would simply wait to be told by the intellectual elites what our personal views should be? A little more humility would go a long way if Van Onselen wants to receive a receptive hearing.
His final slip is in the areas of logic and argument which is an area that Presbyterians, particularly those who value the Scottish style of education, like to take seriously. Nevertheless, having read a few of Van Onselen’s latest offerings, I can only think that this self-professed, world-class debater is trading in fake arguments. According to him:
Having deployed countless red herrings, straw man attacks, use of false equivalences and all too regular ad hominem attacks, the No campaign now plans to argue that black is white: victory can come in the shape of a defeat.
I’ve previously addressed Van Onselen’s rational and rhetorical inadequacies in his debating tactics here. What I find incredible though is how he can so flagrantly commit the precise sins that he accuses his opponents of in the same article. Van Onselen pontificates that, “You can’t make this stuff up.” But au contraire, that’s exactly what he does. Let me summarise:
- Red herrings: After quickly running out of slogans to level at the ‘No’ campaign he introduces the completely unrelated subject of gender equality. Warning: classic diversionary tactic! In his opinion this an “even more important social struggle.” Whoa, easy there, big fella! You haven’t dealt with the same-sex marriage issue yet. Let’s just take one postal plebiscite at a time!! Even Lisa Wilkinson hasn’t started over at Channel Ten yet, and we still don’t know how Waleed is going to react to being paid less than his new female co-host.
- Straw men: May I point out that in the light of the aforementioned “red herring” about gender equality, I was somewhat appalled by Van Onselen continuing to use such gender exclusive language. Why not straw ‘people’? He’s a purist, isn’t he? Then on another issue, he states: “With the response rate nudging up to 80 per cent, opponents can’t delegitimise the process based on low turnout.” Whoever said that? It was Labor and the Greens who wanted to deny the Australian public a say. I can’t find a single example of anyone from the conservative side of politics who has been anything but enthusiastic about participating in the current democratic process.
- False equivalences: Van Onselen thinks that he has defeated the ‘No’ campaign by simply asserting that it is out of step with the trajectory of Western Civilisation. As he so confidently concludes, “The biggest threat to Western Civilisation is a reactionary misunderstanding of what made the West great in the first place.” Van Onselen thinks that it was the Enlightenment. Certainly, the Enlightenment and the revolution in scientific investigation that began in the seventeenth century were landmark events. However, according to Sir Herbert Butterfield, the celebrated British historian and philosopher of history, they never rivalled the pervasive influence on the wider world that came about through the impact of Christianity.
- Ad hominem: The underlying thrust of his article on Saturday, as it is in many of his other articles, was a tirade against our former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who as a modern conservative Van Onselen dismisses as a “dinosaur reactionary.” However, his even more serious accusation is that, “Former prime minister, Tony Abbott, used a speech in the US to claim that if the ‘No’ case secured 40 per cent of the vote it would be a ‘moral victory’ for the conservative definition of marriage as being between only a man and a woman. That’s called moving the goalposts.” Actually, that’s called quoting a person out of context since as Abbott himself concludes: “In the meantime though, there are still 3 million Australians who haven’t voted and we’re fighting to get them all because, yes or no, everyone should have a say; one way or another, the result will be easier to accept the more closely it reflects the judgment of the whole people.”
Frankly, I expect far more of a columnist who claims that he is a fair-minded historian who understands the rules of debate. Van Onselen could well revise some basic lessons from his school days. But just to be clear, we are not offering him a refund anytime soon.
Mark Powell is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.
Cartoon: Ben R Davis.
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