A reader sent me a link to a link, through which I heard an interesting radio interview between a playwright in London and a BBC interviewer. You can access it right here. Neither the playwright (Richard Bean) nor the interviewer (Melanie Phillips) is known to me, but the stuff of their conversation certainly was familiar. Its essence was the puzzle over how it can be, to quote her, that in her country, arguably the best-educated, most rational population in the world — in any period of history — there are things that simply cannot be said, and positions that simply cannot be put. One of the candidate issues was immigration, and another was ‘anthropogenic global warming’. Richard Bean had written plays about both issues; I haven’t seen them.
I’ll let pass to the keeper the claim that the UK is the best-educated and most rational society in the world, but the remainder of her query applies to Australia as well. For ‘immigration’ we would supply ‘indigenous’, although there is certainly a great to-do here about ‘asylum-seekers’, and they’re certainly intentional immigrants, even if they haven’t gone through the ordinary channels.
In the recent comments on this website there is one referring to a post in 2012 about indigenous issues, and it is the first in more than 1000 comments to be both crude and ignorant. I left it there unedited, partly because another of the themes of the interview was the use of invective and character assassination as a form of debate. This seems to me to be widespread here, as it apparently is in the UK — though not, I rejoice to say, on this website. But its force is what Melanie Phillips referred to: if you don’t like what someone has said, instead of pointing out what you think is an error, you tell them to shut up: don’t say those things!
Why is it like this? The Phillips/Bean argument, as I heard it, is that a set of people you might refer to as ‘the Left’, or ‘the intelligentsia’, or ‘the cultural elites’, most of them in professional, scientific, intellectual or managerial positions, have taken over the role of cultural judges. They decide what is the politically correct, culturally approved, position on a number of difficult issues, and their counterparts in the media follow their decisions. To speak against these decisions is to commit a serious offence, and to do so from within the left parties – here in Oz, Labor and the Greens — is to risk severe censure.
Let me give an illustration. Peter Taylor, an environmentalist with impressive Green credentials, finally decided that the global warming scare had been overdone, and wrote a book called Chill saying so. It came out in 2009, at the time of the Copenhagen climate meeting, and was very well publicised. But it was not reviewed, at all, in the Guardian, the Independent, the Observer or the New Scientist, all journals that had previously published his work. This book of his was simply ignored by those who ought to have taken it seriously. Taking no notice of an inconvenient fact, article or book, is a common ploy in today’s intellectual world.
I’ve made a similar point about the treatment of climate issues on the ABC, where only the scary stuff is ever mentioned. The fact of a long period without any significant warming has been passed by. Yet the ABC’s news people are competent on other issues where the ‘correct’ position is not in question. What happens, say Bean and Phillips, is that people ‘conform’. Australia is quite good at collecting statistics on all sorts of matters, which are publicly available. But if they do not aid the correct position they too are ignored. Conforming involves ignoring things.
Phillips asked Bean how could we get out of this bind, and he did not have an answer. I’m not sure I have one, either, but I am uncomfortably reminded that when I was young there was a very different orthodoxy ruling in Australia. It was about Queen and Country, it issued a ‘Call to the Nation’, it was very much into Empire Day and Anzac Day, it thought the Church and church leaders were important, as was the closing of shops at 12.30 pm on Saturday — and it was not at all interested in real debate. Countervailing views were ignored or their perpetrators censured. On the whole, the mass media followed the orthodoxy. Those who tried to put forward other views were sometimes branded as ‘communist’, a worse term even than ‘denier’ today.
How did we get out of that one? Well, the upholders of the orthodoxy were old, grew older, moved into retirement and died. The world changed with increasing education and the increasing movement of women into the workforce. The birth control pill, and the war in Vietnam greatly disturbed the old order. The universities, which had been small and rather conservative, grew in size and diversity.
In short, maybe there is always a ruling orthodoxy in any society, and if you don’t like it, you have to wait until its stranglehold weakens, which will happen in time. And of course you can always do your best to counter its oppressive views, bit by bit, by putting forward good arguments and good evidence, and ignore the consequent flak. But I agree that there is a difference. Today many more of us have access to argument and evidence, but what is not happening is any kind of serious debate about the meaning of the arguments and the evidence. And that was where the Bean/Phillips interview began.
What do you think?