“Not a good look.”
“Doesn’t pass the pub test.”
Such are the statements by which many controversial or complex ideas or issues are instantly dismissed or automatically vetoed in the contemporary public square.
Need to take a chopper for an important meeting that might ultimately save the public millions of dollars? Not a good look. Have to tell a big charity that they’re no longer getting their taxpayer cash because they can’t prove any results? Bad optics. And, heaven forbid, consider raising politicians’ salaries to be competitive, or raise the GST to pay for more social goods? Doesn’t pass the pub test.
The examples of the deadening effect of filtering through an assumed negative public reaction are numerous. As the community’s aversion to things is second-guessed – and always in favour of reducing risk – we shackle ourselves to what’s safe, mediocre and inherited.
We have become optical chickens. We mindlessly conform to the unchallengeable and yet undefined pub test – as if nobody ever got drunk in the front bar of Sydney’s Fortune of War pub since it opened in 1828.
A recent example is the ‘resignation’ of the Australia Post CEO, Christine Holgate, on the basis of her gift of four watches worth approximately $20,000 to a group of executives who secured a $66 million deal. Our politicians and our media competed to be the first to declare how the gifts didn’t meet community expectations. The consensus pronouncement of “bad optics” quickly and nearly unquestioningly multiplied via the lightning pace of the modern media cycle. The CEO was soon gone – before any substantive inquiry into the actual instance. She herself perfectly described and basically endorsed the dynamic in her statement: “I appreciate the optics of the gifts involved do not pass the ‘pub test’ for many.”
That some clairvoyant understanding of public sentiment by the political and media elite decided Holgate’s fate is sort of predictable. It’s worrying, though, that virtually no one – not even the person paying the price – pushed back against the rationale. The optics have become almost all-powerful. The ace in the decision-making deck.
In that episode, for example, few noted that the rewarded executives had earned a fortune in a sharp business deal for Australia Post and its shareholders, the public. Or, that the CEO had taken a marginal business –- with similar ones closing or losing money all over the globe –- and had got it to generate a $300 million profit. Or, that ABC executives had received bigger cash payments for good performance.
For the sake of appearances, we seem willing to inhibit innovation and shed leadership talent. How does that work out in real cost and benefit terms?
The potentially most tragic current issue subject to the optical imperative are the allegations with regard to the Special Air Services Regiment. Rather than seek some deeper understanding or insights into why alleged crimes may have taken place in Afghanistan, it’s been easier and lazier for many to go to tried-and-true narratives. “Bad apples” – which is dismissive and superficial. “Not representative of Australia’s proud military history” -– which isn’t fully true. Or, the most stupid framing: “toxic masculinity”.
Few in the public square –- and virtually no journalists — have had the patience, discipline, or nuance to look for other explanations. As pointed out by military ethicists, we should be considering the impact of post-traumatic stress (PTS) and moral injury, which is partially an inability to accurately make decisions due to hyper-vigilance, on the warriors we send to act in our name. But that would be harder than the superficial. It might even show us to be moralising hypocrites who don’t complain about our troops’ post-combat care or their shocking suicide rates.
As a result of being captive to shallowness, the prospect of justice and due process – slow, exact and complicated – either for the apparent victims or the alleged perpetrators is diminished. I truly fear we may learn nothing about how to fix things for the future –- like how best to prepare our troops for the horrors of war and their conduct obligations — because we’ve adopted convenient, pre-emptive answers before even asking the right questions.
There’s also duplicity in how the ‘bad look lens’ applies. Journalists are quick to invoke it –- and the frankly contrived insights into public sentiment that go with it — when they think some policies / issues should get axed. They nod at each other knowingly on panel shows. Then, some turn around and editorially criticise governments and politicians for their apparent lack of courage and leadership, and willingness to take chances for change. You can’t win.
The pedestrian populism isn’t condemned; it’s de facto condoned and compounded because “optics” are an easier currency to trade in than analysis. It’s a cycle of spinners’ sensibilities that leads nowhere.
And regretfully, what was once the insider shorthand of the tiny political and journalist class has now been broadly adopted in public parlance. A public policy concept may have died a quick death at a ministerial whiteboard because a keen young advisor –– channelling the Press Gallery who in turn is channelling John and Jane Doe — played the optics card; now, its regular punters and civic institutions who are using the lens of looks to kick things to the kerb.
Style is killing substance. I know of one student who felt she needed to change her Master’s thesis for no other reason than a lecturer’s informal counsel that “it doesn’t quite look right.” Even NGOs with brands that Australians cherish now maintain ‘reputational risk registers’ of issues that might bite them on the bum.
In fact, one of Australia’s niche export industries is now risk management consulting. Apparently, we’re respected internationally for how well we can contain stuff rather than create stuff. Conformity is conquering courage. Managerialism is mangling mission.
Sure, all of this might actually produce some benefit. This collective vanity may make us all more conscientious about how our images and behaviours and perhaps improves some of our choices. We don’t want to get caught looking stupid. In public policy terms, reform concepts are therefore rigorously tested by rows of risk rangers before being initiated –- and that caution may make them more sustainable.
On the other hand, the seeds of new policy and other ideas don’t grow well in soil desiccated of the rich nutrients of debate, diversity and disagreement. Intellectual humous doesn’t always smell good and it surely doesn’t look pretty. It doesn’t fit in the confined terracotta pot of Twitter. New and complex ideas by their very nature have a ‘design bias’ toward controversy and contest.
So, the next time you seem someone -– politician, journo, talking head, workmate, or neighbour –- seek to cancel some potentially provocative thought on the basis of superficial reckoning, please say to them: “look again”.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.