At the discussion on arts funding that I mentioned the other day, one of the panel spoke well about the need for ‘a mature discussion’, in which each side really listened to the other, and thought about what they had heard. I was reminded at once of an encounter I had experienced at the University of Canberra, in my last year there. My resourceful deputy, Meredith Edwards, who knew a great deal about how you can translate good research ideas into effective policy, suggested that we meet with two union leaders under a neutral arbiter and have a ‘mature discussion’ about matters affecting our staff, most of them union members. I agreed, and a series of meetings took place. We did have a mature discussion, and both sides learned a lot. I might be wrong, but I think honours were shared, in that each side had misconceptions about the position of the other, and when they were cleared away there was plenty of room to move forward.
Not to do so, when you can, is really a mistake. Early in my term at UC we had a black ban on the removal of garbage that arose from the University’s failure to move quickly enough on the reclassification of general staff. One of the administration’s middling senior staff was moving off to a general meeting of staff, and I asked her why people were so exercised about the reclassification. ‘It’s just more of the same!’ she said excitedly. ‘Twenty years ago we were promised a day off in lieu, and we never got it!’ And off she went. Her anger was palpable. Twenty years before! That was the early 1970s, and I was a young professor at Macquarie University, learning my trade there. Why hadn’t this matter been resolved long before? I never found out. But I did learn from the black ban that any organisation needs to be able to have mature discussions all the time, otherwise you do easily assemble grievances and defended positions from the past that get in the way of what you want to do in the present, let alone the future.
And where do we have those mature discussions in today’s Australia? Parliamentary debates are not good examples, but parliamentary committees often have them, I am told. I think back to my past working life. Did we have them at universities? The answer comes fairly easily: universities were like Parliament. If there were an opportunity to grandstand, discussions at faculty meetings, Council meetings and the like would quickly move quickly from ‘mature discussions’ to what people like to call ‘robust exchanges’, point-scoring and rhetoric. But if what was happening was a committee meeting to sort out the best way to deal with, for example, the expenditure of government money on assistance to disabled students, there was usually clarity, co-operation and common sense. It helped if the committee members involved people without past public positions on the matter in question.
Newspapers provided a sort of forum for good discussions. My local newspaper maintains a couple of pages devoted to letters to the editor, and you can often find a range of opinion there which might help the seeker after truth. Just as often, however, he or she might be put off by the intellectual intolerance of some letter-writers, who see those who disagree with their point of view as lunatics or worse. Many are politically partisan, and are either defending or attacking, depending on the case. I used to get letters from readers explaining that they had a point of view about something I had written, but they would rather express that point of view to me personally than set it out in the public prints. It was commonly the case then that what they wanted to say ran to many hundreds of words, but I responded, always. Most such contributions were at a tangent to what I had written, but I did my best.
To me a mature discussion is one where one enters the discussion prepared to learn and if necessary to change one’s mind. This is what I learned to do as a postgraduate student in history and political science, and it became my métier. I learned almost at once, when teaching undergraduates myself, that the teacher can be wrong, and I said so, to the astonishment of some of my students. That did not mean that I had no point of view myself — on the contrary — but that my point of view was always contingent. If the facts changed, or I came across a better path, my point of view would change too. Again, some people find that astonishing. The media refer to changes of position as ‘backflips’, and maybe some are. But an honest person must be able to change his or her mind on an issue if they recognise superior reasoning or evidence.
Were the constitutional debates that preceded the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia periods of sustained ‘mature discussion’? It’s ages since I looked at them. What about the preceding debates in the American colonies that led to the formation of the USA, and to publications like The Federalist Papers? The verdict of history is that these were occasions of serious and thoughtful discussion. Is it that our current issues are too trivial to produce that kind of engagement? I would have thought not. We all seem to have opinions, and perhaps we are too ready to defend them against all comers. Our politics, as I’ve said before, is about highly specific claims and grievances, not about over-arching ideas of what would constitute a better society for everyone.
It saddens me that I do not find much evidence of ‘mature discussions’ in our society, and I would be glad of guidance, if any reader can point to an example. What we have are statements from the pulpit, answered by statements from another pulpit. There is no recognition that one should listen first, and speak later. The kinds of essays I write on this website had their counterparts in what I wrote nearly fifty years ago and afterwards in newspaper columns, though they are today more reflective and less focussed on immediate events in the daily news round. I suppose I see them as my current entry into a hoped-for mature discussion. I have posted on other websites, but have often found that my contribution there has been machine-gunned, or worse, simply tipped into the electronic wpb. I left ‘The Conversation’, which ought to be exactly the place for a mature discussion, because of that kind of treatment.
Now that I run my own website I have to confess to disappointment that there have been no well-argued contributions that are critical of what I have written about ‘climate change’, or indeed about anything else. In the current series of essays that are an attempt to summarise what I think are serious objections to the global warming scare, there has not been one rejoinder from anyone who is well-known in the orthodox camp. I’ve debated David Karoly in public in Melbourne, but he does not take part in website discussions.The reasons are probably straight-forward: the orthodox camp has the power and the authority. Why would you engage in a public discussion with any critic, when the media and to a smaller extent the governments accept what you are saying? Judith Curry has more success in the USA, but even there the defenders of the orthodoxy only enter into an engagement over very small matters, not the core issues. The various website interested in the issue talk to those who agree with them, rarely to the other side. There is no engagement.
So I write for the readership out there. There are a lot of readers, and their number is growing. Occasionally one will write to me thanking me for what I am doing, and others will say the same on the website. Perhaps, in a slow way, what I am writing about is having an effect. Maybe there never were any ‘mature discussions’ about the great issues in Australian life, and websites like this, and the others in our society, are the best we can have. The Federalist Papers, after all, presented one side of the constitutional debate in the American colonies, not both sides.Ultimately some of the questions in our society are dealt with at the time of an election, but I doubt that the coming election will be one of them. We will be choosing between slogans, not between cogent analyses of what is wrong, and what might be done about it, let alone as the result of a sustained public discussion.