Battle of the binge-thinkers

Published in the The Sun-Herald, 30 April 2011

Julia Gillard and her partner attended the Royal Wedding on Friday at Westminster Abbey. With an eclectic guest list of celebrities beyond La Gillardine’s usual social circle, I’m betting she made a lot of pleasant small talk. Here are three things she probably didn’t say:

“I’m a republican.”

“I’m an aetheist.”

“I don’t believe in marriage.”

I presume she judged the context inappropriate. But if she had said what we all know she thinks about religion, weddings and an Australian republic, should the Queen have politely agreed?

Australians are a friendly people. Amiable. Agreeable. Perhaps too agreeable.

One way we express friendliness is by agreeing with each other. So, logically, we assume those who disagree with us are not our friends. And no-one wants to hang out with people who don’t like them.

Instead we hang out with people who agree with us. And everything remains harmonious. Even the spiky Crikey website goes for entire discussion threads without a single comment that couldn’t have been replaced with a click of the ‘like’ button.

We’ve let our politics become all about teams. No shades or ambiguities. We’re the Reds, they’re the Blues, and over there are the Greens. We don’t sit together when the game’s on. Increasingly that’s how we argue too – we know which team we’re on, so there’s no need to listen.

These days it’s hard to imagine our Prime Minister and Opposition Leader in the same room without baleful glares and snarly insults. But remember the run-up to the last federal election? There were a few months there where Tony and Julie G. looked less like divorcees and more like a likely couple. They sparred and flirted happily. Tony called Julie a “fine parliamentarian”. She chided him when he was “naughty”. There was real intellectual chemistry.

Then there was the sad moment when their advisers told them you can’t show the public you respect your opponent. In his first parliamentary address as opposition leader, Mr Abbott announced that the flirting with then Acting Prime Minister Gillard would have to end. The shutters came down and fun was verboten. The argument got personal – now Abbott’s branding Gillard a liar, and she’s calling him a “hollow, bitter man”. Ideas and debate have been replaced by ideologies and slogans.

People with ideas accept uncertainties and acknowledge their information is incomplete. People with ideologies bend the world to fit their theories, even when this mangles experience beyond recognition.

An ideology is a crude model – like a hypothesis in science, it’s no good until you’ve tried to disprove it. And they always get disproved when tested. Respect for your opponent and healthy debate is what moves us from ideology to good ideas. Sure ideas are messier, but they’re better at describing how the world works and much better suited to addressing its problems. Today is May Day – in Europe on this day they carry the faces of some of the world’s most notorious ideologues through the streets – Lenin, Stalin, Mao. It’s no coincidence they’re also history’s most effective serial killers. Beware a politician who clings to ideology – it’s good for keeping power but rarely good policy.

By contrast we Sydney folk are ideologues on a small scale. Only our egos prevent us from putting our ideas up for attack.

When was the last time you went along to a talk you knew you’d disagree with, picked up a journal of ideas you don’t share or held a dinner party to bring together friends who would like each other, even if they disagree? When was the last time you forced yourself to really challenge your ideas?

When Leonie Phillips and I started our Shaken and Stirred event series, which gave rise to our contrarian journal, Binge Thinking, we set out to gather as many conflicting views as we could. We invited people from across the spectrum – Left, Right, monarchist, minarchist – to argue about ideas, not the people who held them. We broke all the rules of dinner party etiquette and seated the people who would disagree most next to each other and stoked the fires with controversial ideas.

This seating plan gives rise to the most beautiful enmities since Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott danced around each other on the Today show five years ago – and continues to remind us that republican or monarchist, religious or atheist, married or unmarried, disagreement is the fine romance of democratic thought.

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