Politics must be more than noise


Man with megaphoneElection times make us aware of the existence of the public space. We notice the noise. But despite the noise, the public space eludes description, except by metaphors.

It comprises the different forms of opinion making, representation, protest, personal communications, policy statements by organisations large and small, polls and their interpretation, sermons, pronouncements and conversations with taxi drivers and friends that help shape public life and the decisions that affect us.

We normally describe this complex reality through metaphors drawn from more intimate experience. We speak of the public debate, public conversation, the market place, the public theatre of public discourse. The metaphors provide a way of organising a complex and messy reality. They deserve reflection because they also enshrine our view of what we should value and disregard within the public sphere.

The metaphor of the market place goes back to classical Athens where public decisions taken by the state were debated in the market place. Now the image of the market place evokes big commercial transactions.

If we describe the public sphere as a market place we privilege the economic aspects of reality and values like efficiency and productivity. The exchanges between people that matter are concerned with how things are to be done, not why they should be done or what human values are involved.

The disadvantage of conceiving the public sphere in this way is that we undervalue disinterested ideas and, as became evident in the financial crisis, we fail to detect the destructive effects of self-interested arguments on the economy itself.

The metaphor of debate is also used to characterise the public sphere. It conceives of public life as a forum in which ideas are defended and rebutted. Debating is included among the activities that Plato famously described as the art of making bad ideas seem superior to good ideas. Even when debating is married to an ethic of truth telling, it often results simply in people convincing themselves that what is in their interests must be true.

In Australia demands for public debate on issues usually produce unedifying results. The cogency of a position is identified with the violence with which it is advanced and not with the persuasiveness of the arguments that support it. Debate on topics such as immigration or the treatment of criminals usually licenses the display of ignorance, prejudice and inhumanity. When steel-trap minds come out to play, pity the mice.

Another metaphor to describe the public sphere is that of the theatre. This is attractive because it recognises that people will play parts that do not fully reflect their inner selves, that public life has its lines, and that we must enter the minds of others in order to play our part.

The image of the public sphere as theatre, too, licensed gracious gestures that allowed flexibility to be seen as a strength, not as weakness. The emperor, incorruptible guardian of the law, could allow himself to be overcome with compassion on hearing a plea for mercy and offer a pardon which was expedient for the common good.

Presumably the reverence in which great Parliamentary speeches are held also derive from the power of the theatrical image. Its limitation, however, is that it emphasises skill and articulacy. It does not pay due weight to the muted and powerless voices in the public sphere.

Other metaphors are based on the exchange of opinions. The public sphere is described as discussion or conversation. Of the two images, I prefer conversation. Discussion suggests purposefulness and focus, both admirable qualities, but it minimises the importance of the heart as well as the mind of the speakers, and the possibility that they may change their mind as a result of the exchange.

Conversation implies that the public sphere is a space for listening and changing as well as talking. It has its own disadvantages, of course. It is much overused and can also be a little twee. It may trail associations of gossip, refinement based on unfamiliarity with life lived hard, and of fashionable opinion. But, like discussion, it suggests that civility and personal involvement are important in public affairs.

All these images are appropriate for aspects of public life in a time of election. Debate can be found in the postings, theatre in the photo-ops, conversation in homes. But the dominant images that election coverage of the public sphere suggests have been of monologue and of static. There is not much point in a public space if you can't hear yourself think there.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, election 2010, labor, coalition, liberal, julia gillard, tony abbott, public space



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Existing comments

Andrew Hamilton appropriately emphasizes the theatrics that now dominate election campaigns – style over substance.

But who should be blamed?

The politicians are at fault to some extent, but I believe that the mass media – the daily papers, radio and TV, are the main culprits. They give more publicity to unwary off-the-cuff comments (and don’t hesitate to take them out of context) than to serious statements of policy or opinion. And give headlines to hair colour and clothes.

More generally, the media repeatedly denigrate politicians and politics, jokingly or seriously.

Kenneth Galbraith, not long before his death, wrote that ‘Corporatism’ has taken over from Capitalism. Does this powerful force see parliamentary democracy as a threat that must be scorned or controlled, or both?

Bob Corcoran | 20 August 2010  

So much public discourse these days as in advertising and marketing is not debate but propaganda. Any good debate must be based on good evidence. politicians in selling their message in policy must be backed up with competent experts and not just spin doctors

John Ozanne | 22 August 2010  

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