Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Demise of Sensible Conversation

A Post by Dr John Quinn

Photo Courtesy Q&A
One of the more disturbing trends in the current Australian public discourse is the reliance on second hand information in the formation of closely held views.  As I watched Monday night’s Q&A program on ABC Television the problem was most obviously manifest in the discussion of the “Innocence of Muslims”, the Youtube video which has sparked riots all across the world, including one here in Sydney.  Panelist after panelist condemned both video and rioter alike, describing the video as hateful and insulting, the handiwork of a “nutter”. There is, however, another common feature in every panelist’s response, as is evident in the transcript excerpts below. 
GREG SHERIDAN: Well, look, I haven't seen the film but everything I hear about is it sounds like his objective was to incite hatred.
CLOVER MOORE: Well, I haven't seen the film either and I know that Hillary Clinton came out very early and condemned it as being very insulting and appalling.
ROBYN DAVIDSON: I haven't seen it either but from what everyone says, you know... Look, I think he’s a nutter.
Panelist after panelist confessed to not having personally viewed the video. Instead, they sought to rely on the observations and reflections of others.  In some cases this might be perfectly legitimate and reasonable, but the question then immediately arises as to whether those secondary sources are reliable. Had the secondary sources seen the video themselves and, if they had, was their interpretation accurate and their reaction fair? To be frank, I haven’t seen the “Innocence of Muslims”, and nor am I intending to.  But I am not putting my second, third or possibly fourth-hand view about it on national television, either. Although the Q&A discussion of the “Innocence of Muslims” makes for a colourful example, this reliance on hearsay is by no means peculiar to controversial Youtube videos. It might equally be applied to the discussion of history, science, politics or religion.  Later in the same program, on the topic of Israel:

GREG SHERIDAN: I comprehensively reject Ilan's narrative of Israel. I think it’s wrong in every respect. I haven't had time to read all Ilan's books. 

Here we see the same problem – Mr Sheridan has “comprehensively” rejected historian Ilan Pappe’s narrative of Israel as “wrong in every respect”. The language could not be more definitive.  Even so, Greg’s conclusion must have been reached at least partially on the basis of secondary information, as by his own admission he hasn’t read all of Ilan Pappe’s writings.

The same issue comes up recurrently in the climate science discussion, where second and third hand interpretations of science are constantly espoused by commentators and politicians with unwavering conviction. For people without any scientific training it is seemingly impossible to spot the fact from the fiction.  The public are left baffled, unable to determine whether climate change is a problem warranting immediate action or an enormous hoax that means we should never trust a scientist again. It is frustrating enough to see opinions given about topics in history, science and culture on the basis of flimsy or completely absent research.

Photo courtesy of ABC

As a Christian, though, it is especially troubling to see the way in which public figures approach the Scriptures.  One week prior to the discussion of the “Innocence of Muslims”, the same program featured Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen and Melbourne comedian and atheist Catherine Deveny, among others discussing the position of the church on marriage (here). One question covered the interesting issue of whether there was anything that would convince Catherine to give up on atheism and become some sort of believer. In her answer, Catherine Deveny took strong issue with the text of the Bible.

CATHERINE DEVENY: “I mean one of the things that I always think about is like if God exists why doesn't he show himself? But when you actually look at the Bible, which is - that's the only text that I’m - like, religious text that I'm really familiar with, it is basically social engineering embedded in fairytales and horror stories which is just chock full of homophobia, misogyny, discrimination and division and most people haven’t even read it. It has been written by 44 - you know, 60 people, I think, 44 chapters, you know, three different languages over thousands of years, thousands of different interpretations and despite all of those different interpretations, the only thing they can all agree on is homophobia, misogyny, discrimination and division." 

So which is it – 44 or 60 authors? And how many “chapters”? Catherine Deveny’s answer seems to betray the extent of her real familiarity with the Bible. And to assert that “it is basically social engineering embedded in fairytales and horror stories which is just chock full of homophobia, misogyny, discrimination and division” seems to be a fairly crass characterization of the content of the Bible. I won’t deny that there probably are a good many different interpretations of parts of the Bible, and that regrettably some people have used the Bible to justify all manner of terrible practices.  However,the main thing that “they can all agree on” is probably more that Jesus, God’s only Son came as part of God’s perfect plan to rescue the world from sin. Of course, I wouldn’t expect to see or hear that on Q&A: the first rule of modern media commentary is to never let the facts stand in the way of a good diatribe.


Anonymous said...

John, I think you make a good point about reliance on hearsay in public discourse and debate. As for Catherine Deveny's comments: I am torn between being surprised to find a female atheist (tongue only slightly in cheek - they really do seem to constitute a small percentage of the total), and being appalled by such ignorance on the part of someone who claims to be "familiar with" the bible. To be fair to skeptics as a group, many do do their homework much better than this before proffering opinions.

Greg T

Anonymous said...

Dear John
I thought this was a helpful reflection and along with Trevor's comments, also part of the growing critique of Q@A. I often find it a difficult show to watch, but am still drawn too it. It may helpful to have a few shows with only people who are genuinely wanting to contribute and listen - cut out those who are beating their own agenda or showing off their egos. Perhaps a panel discussion on sin would be helpful and at least very intriguing.
Peter Bentley