There can be little doubt in the mind of the any even vaguely aware Australian that the soon to conclude Postal Survey on Marriage has given rise to a level of oppositional resentment in public discourse. Regardless of which side of that survey one seems to support, there is someone else who will take exception to your support and who will subsequently proceed to use just about any method or avenue to alienate you and your position. These methods might include the outright dismissal of your position is ignorant, the slinging of names, the attempt to silence you, and a few others that are readily identifiable.
And I want to make it very clear that this resorting to alienation of the other exists on both sides of the argument, and is not restricted only to this particular issue. It is a common phenomenon in what passes for public debate in Australia – we see it even in the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia – and only seems to be becoming more prevalent. The dismissal of anyone who doesn’t agree with you, sometimes via the use of the methods indicated above, seems to be the normative mode of public discourse and debate in Australia at the present time.
Part of this increasingly oppositional approach to public discourse comes from the exaltation of the individual that is part of contemporary human experience. In terms of the holding of ideas, this often is expressed with the phrase “I have a right to my opinion”. And it is certainly true that one does have a right to hold an opinion, yet the holding of an opinion does not mean that your opinion is either a) correct, or b) absolute. Your opinion is exactly that – an opinion – and not an unwavering or unchangeable statement of reality. There may be new facts that come to light that can and should change your own perspective – your opinion – such that you grow and develop in your understanding and the ideas you hold.
A further part of the demise in standards of public discourse is a refusal to engage with ideas, particularly ideas that may be confronting, because this requires an openness to the existence of other ideas than the ones you hold yourself. It also requires the willingness and ability to both expound and explain your position and defend your position without resorting to ad hominem attacks on the other person who may hold ideas and positions different and opposing to your own. It is “easier” to simply hold to your own idea, to dismiss anything that challenges your own idea, and, more significantly, to dismiss the person who holds an idea that you do not like or which you find challenging.
At times in contemporary public discourse in Australia, the ability to hold in tension opposing ideas seems to be diminishing. It no longer seems possible to engage with ideas, to debate those ideas, to perhaps change your own position because of engaging with the ideas of others, and, in the end, to agree to accept that others might hold ideas and positions opposed to your own without resorting to the complete alienation of any opposition to your own ideas and position. Increasingly, public discourse and debate is about ‘winning’ and ‘losing’, about the scoring of points over ‘the other’, of ensuring that anyone opposed to your own ideas is demeaned and dismissed. This is no longer debate and discourse; this has now become alienation and dehumanisation.
The result of this development is the increased likelihood of entrenched division within society, a permanent demarcation between a wide variety of different groups within society that are identified by the ideas they hold and are prepared to defend without question and at all costs. The segregation of society into different ideological camps does not promote harmony and societal cohesion; it highlights and institutionalises difference and dissent. And it is society as a whole that suffers because difference becomes the normative marker rather than the common basis of society in a shared humanity.
So how do we change this? How do we deal with differences in ideas and beliefs in society in a constructive way?
The first step, not an easy one admittedly, is for each of us to recognise that when someone disagrees with us or holds an opinion different to us they are not disrespecting us. An encounter or interaction with such people is an opportunity to engage with them in respectful dialogue with the hope that as a result of engagement both participants will grow in their understanding – even if their opinions or ideas do not change dramatically or at all. It is the ideas and opinions that are worthy of being engaged with and debated, not the holders of those ideas and opinions. The holders of ideas and opinions – even or especially when they are opposed to our ideas or opinions – are worthy of a basic respect because they are fellow members of humanity; they should not dismissed or disrespected simply because they don’t agree with us.
The second step, also not an easy one, is to encourage respect for difference and disagreement, an openness towards ideas and opinions that might be challenging, and, more especially, an openness towards, and respect for, the humanity of those who disagree with us. Society is infinitely better when there is a variety of opinions and ideas in the public domain. A variety of ideas and opinions constantly and consistently challenges the members of society to think, to reason, and to grow – and every member of society benefits in that situation because society will be bettered by the constant growth in ideas.
Admittedly, the task will not be easy. Being open to different ideas can be frightening for everyone; it can be challenging to be asked to consider to change long-held beliefs and opinions. The challenge remains, however, to be open to new ideas, to the possibility of changing, because it’s the only way to avoid society’s walk towards entrenched division.