In a period of political polarisation and rabid tribalism, we have lost the art of disagreeing well. Next month’s federal election will undoubtedly incur divisive and emotionally charged debate. On issues such as refugee policy and climate change, civil discourse often finds itself shelved for insults and derision. Unsavoury statements clog our comment sections, and spill into real life.
For many voters, the political landscape has become so vicious and exclusionary that they only feel free to express their views at the ballot box. As we approach what will be a high-stakes election where politics will take centre-stage, it is a timely reminder that the flourishing of a liberal democracy depends upon a culture of mutual respect, even in strong disagreement.
The viral YouTube series Middle Ground depicts people from both sides of our world’s most controversial topics coming together to engage in respectful conversation. Some of its most popular videos include Pro-Gun vs. Anti-Gun, Trump Supporters vs. Immigrants and Pro-Israel vs. Pro-Palestine. The conversations are confronting, but enlightening. Participants almost always report having a better understanding of their opposition’s position after the show.
Middle Ground’s popularity is owed to the fact that in our society, controversial topics are usually reserved for screaming matches. This is exacerbated by the usage of labels such as “Nazi”, “homophobe”, “libtard” and “snowflake”. Labelling is anti-intellectual, seeking to demonise the opposition rather than engage with the substance of their argument. It simply reinforces people’s viewpoints and entrenches a toxic tribal mentality.
Part of the problem lies in political and thought leaders failing to set a standard of dignified debate. Rather, they resort to cheap shots, such as Hillary Clinton infamous “basket of deplorables” comment, and alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopolous calling feminists “fat and ugly” in a Studio 10 interview.
Conversely, Middle Ground illustrates the art of healthy disagreement and debate, without watering down their differences of opinion. People of various political persuasions debating in a civilised manner should be a part of a healthy society. Sadly, it’s so missed that civility can go viral on YouTube.
So how did we end up here? In this cesspool?
This absence of civil discourse is symptomatic of the increased polarisation of our politics and our society. We might think this is reserved for the USA, yet Australia is no exception. According to the Australian Election Study, in 1996, 53.6 per cent of voters placed themselves in the political centre, however in 2016 that number fell to only per cent.
A shrinking centre is a worrying trend. One explanation is the rise of populism and demagoguery. Populism tears at the very social fabric of a democracy, as it seeks to sow division and pits people against each other.
People are also increasingly trapped in their own echo chambers. Facebook preference-engines while curating our online experience are also reinforcing our prejudices and insulating us from opposing views. The Cambridge Analytica scandal illustrated this in real time. Echo chambers ease the process of demonising the ‘other’, causing political conversations to become venomous.
Democracy is facing a crisis. Social ties are fracturing. People are outraged, and there is widespread intolerance for a diversity of political views.
The Voltairean principle (actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall) of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, should be the ethos governing political conversation. Freedom of speech is the lifeblood of a functioning democracy. Used poorly, it means people who express their convictions are howled down and ridiculed. Used effectively, freedom of speech liberates the marketplace of ideas and establishes the conditions for genuinely productive debate.
Former governor of New Jersey, Jim McGreevey prophetically mused:
We are losing sight of civility in government and politics. Debate and dialogue is taking a back seat to the politics of destruction and anger and control. Dogma has replaced thoughtful discussion between people of differing views.
To be worthy of the liberal democracy we have been lucky to inherit from our forefathers, and has blessed us with immeasurable freedoms and prosperity, we must resist the retreat to tribalism. We must re-master the art of disagreeing well.
This election, let’s learn a lesson from Middle Ground.
Instead of succumbing to the temptation to vilify people who hold a different opinion, we should aspire to be radically civil.
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