Political Reality 101

Political Reality 101

Given my status as an internationally recognised commentator on all political and cultural phenomena, some of my friends and colleagues have asked for my opinion on why people think it’s okay to say anything they like on the internet (and even in real life!), irrespective of who it might marginalise or harm. And what is the government doing about it?

*draws deep breath*

Okay, obviously this comes up in the context of the president’s quite breathtaking behaviour since losing the election, especially the incitement to riot and sedition at the Capitol on 6 January.

More profoundly, it’s all about the fact that large numbers of people seem to genuinely believe things that other people find laughable, ridiculous or even dangerous.

How can people within the same communities be so divided in their genuinely held and deepest beliefs? As I’ve said elsewhere, if a community loses sight of its most fundamental values or becomes polarised on those values, it is no longer united. It is no longer a viable community because it no longer shares a common narrative.

Has this happened to America? And if so, how? Could it happen here?

At the risk of sounding glib (NEVER, I hear you cry!) I blame the internet. The so-called democratisation of publishing and information, while giving everyone a voice, has seen the simultaneous erosion of the traditional media’s influence. We are now awash in an ocean of didactic opinion where fact-checking, objectivity and other journalistic standards have all but vanished as the traditional media (those parts of it that remain) devolves to stay relevant to an ever more divided audience.

So what divides the audience?

There has long been an understanding (and even acceptance) of “left” and “right” politics within a polity. Historically, the right are understood to represent the vested interests who want things to stay as they are, and the left are those who want change so that they can have a greater say in the ordering of society and the distribution of its resources.

But what we see today goes way beyond simple left and right. The community is now fractured into thousands of micro-movements on both traditional sides of politics (macro-left and macro-right), most of them just as antagonistic to their fellow micro-movements as they are to the opposing macro.

And of course, these micro-movements were forged on the internet where communities of opinion form and mutate constantly. In the absence of a trusted, objective news source, the communities of opinion become sources of information which underpin and enable the micro-movements.

They effectively become echo-chambers in which people only ever hear what they already think with ever more extreme versions of their “reality” given precedence and prominence by the social media algorithms. Eventually they become radicalised by the “self-evident truth” of their community and have only contempt for others.

But where does the rage come from?

It’s one thing to have a radically polarised or even twisted view of society, but quite another to feel justified in breaking the law or fomenting violence in furtherance of that view. We’ve all seen footage from America in recent times where the president’s supporters have been whipped into a fury on his behalf, with some of them calling for civil war.

You cannot reason with these people. They only hear what they want or expect to hear and any attempt to convince them they are not wholly correct in any aspect of their world-view inspires anger. It’s as though they’ve been desocialised to the point they regard anyone with different views as antagonistic “others” – unbelievers who must be shunned or even exterminated. That’s the next step for those calling for civil war.

Clearly, this has enormous implications for elections. People who genuinely believe that the forces of darkness have stolen control of their country will feel justified in taking non-electoral action to take it back. Especially when they continue to get their news and information only from the increasingly militant echo-chamber of choice, calling for a perverse patriotism.

So how do we fix this problem?

Much as I deplore the recent actions of the president, I feel it would be a big mistake to continue with a second impeachment. He deserves to be impeached, and I daresay his actions could even be deemed seditious and criminal, but now is a time for healing and that process will be massively compromised by inflaming the grievances and passions of his most radical supporters.

Beyond that, there needs to be an objective source of truth that people can trust to inform their opinions. No doubt there will always be micro-movement echo-chambers (where there’s a web there’s a way), but their influence needs to be countered to remind people of what unites them and shine a light into the alternative realities which take shape in the cyber-dark.

Turning our attention then to Australia, while our community is not yet so divided as America, the micro-movements are clearly at work – not least in the media, such as it is. The Australian media, certainly the Murdoch side of it, has lost any pretense at objectivity and has become itself an echo-chamber of opinion rather than fact. Even their cartoonist, Warren, is a blatant propagandist rather than socio-political commentator in the fine Australian tradition. Am I right Dan Andrews?

As for that fine Australian tradition, I grew up in a political landscape that certainly had its left and right divisions, but they weren’t really that far apart. Liberal and Labor were more like a couple of football teams that people barracked for every few years and then forgot about. Losers might be annoyed on election night but they’d get up next morning and nothing had really changed. I used to be amused by that but now I see we were utterly blessed to live through such a time.

I suspect the major parties are a little further apart now – driven by the micro-movements infiltrating and polarising their platforms. I can see a time when both parties will become irrelevant because they do not embrace the realities of their radical infiltrators and the media (and social media) are already howling for harder lines. Newer, harder parties (just like the Nazis in 1930s Germany) will appeal to those with harder opinions and the majors will have to evolve or wither away.

To that end, I can see the stirrings of evolution in the current government – especially as it takes on the media. The Liberal Party has emasculated and decimated the ABC to limit its capacity to report objectively because objectivity does not square with the message the apparatchiks controlling party thinking wish to convey. They even justify their actions by accusing the ABC of an unbalanced “lefty” approach to reporting. It is not taking a leftist approach to reporting simply because you refuse to join the government’s echo-chamber. Facts are facts and do not change at a demagogue’s whim.

As O’Brien said to Winston in Room 101: “You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. But I tell you Winston that reality is not external. Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.”

It’s coming.

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