Never the twain shall meet?

By Legal Eagle

Democracy and the toleration of dissent

This last week or so, I have been contemplating the tribalism of politics, and the way in which even people with similar political values may have vastly different opinions on social policy because they rank those political values differently. Anyone who has been following the blog over the last two weeks won’t need to wonder why this is…

At my English high school, I had a friend who was a neo-Marxist. My other closest friend was a Tory. Neither understood what I saw in the other girl — they disliked one another cordially — but I loved them both. As you can see, I haven’t really changed: I have always been friends with people with wildly different beliefs. Anyway, the neo-Marxist told me one afternoon that she was going to an environmental meeting, then to a meeting of people who were concerned about indigenous cultures. I wondered aloud, “Which one would you preference if an issue came up which produced a conflict?” She glared at me. “There never is a conflict!” she said, angrily. “I can think of a conflict,” I said (perhaps unwisely). “In Australia, indigenous people want to eat turtle and dugongs which are an endangered species. Surely the environmental people would find that problematic, whereas the indigenous rights people would think they were entitled to eat the animals?” From my recollection her response was to say, “Rubbish! I’ve never heard of that!” and to storm off furiously. Unfortunately, I’ve always had a habit of riling people by raising these kinds of questions: I just can’t help myself. It makes me unpopular with those who unquestioningly accept the rightness of a particular doctrine. Because I have these tendencies, I try to be open to other people when they do that to me. I try to be able to admit that I might be wrong, and that there might be things I haven’t thought about. Perhaps that’s why people forgive me…most of the time.

I’ve never really understood why an opposing opinion makes people angry, as long as it’s politely expressed and has reasons behind it (even if they’re reasons I don’t personally regard as important). I’m just fascinated to know what makes other people tick, and to see what reasons they do regard as important. In that regard, I note that this blog is a rarity: a meeting of three people with different political opinions. The only other I can think of is Club Troppo. Many of the big political blogs are firmly tribal, and are populated by commenters who belong to the tribe. If you express an opinion that’s contrary to the tribal opinion, then it’s “stacks on” time, and suddenly 50 people descend on you to tell you you’re stupid and wrong. Many of the people from the other tribes have probably been banned from commenting by this point, so you find that you’re mostly on your lonesome. This isn’t conducive to the expression of dissenting opinions. It’s one of the reasons why I often don’t comment on big political blogs. I read the posts, but I go back to my own place and write a post rather than engage in a “stushie”. Or I may make a single comment, and then retreat. Or I may just say nothing.

Another thing I’ve been contemplating in last week is: what does it mean to be “left-wing”? What values are important? For me, equality, freedom of speech and tolerance are central. The genesis of the Left was in the realisation that workers were not dumb and stupid, and maybe they were entitled to an opinion and a voice too, because they contributed a good deal to society. Gradually, this realisation extended not only to class, but to other people in society: women, people of other ethnicities, people of different sexualities etc. To me, the Left should be all about listening to different voices, not just the voice of a particular few.  But some people on the Left are very bad at tolerating dissent or differing opinions (I came across a few when I dipped my toe in student activism). If you disagree with what they say in any respect, you must be a fascist imperialist running-dog, and complicit with the system. I must say I find such doctrinaire leftists extraordinarily frustrating. There’s little point discussing anything with them: you can predict exactly what their views are before they open their mouths. They see themselves as “radical”, but actually there’s a remarkable conformity about their views. Yawn! Of course, not all on the Left are like this and many are prepared to have interesting and open-minded debates between themselves and with the Other Side (I want to make a very special hat tip to the people at Strange Times here with their Monthly Debates).

But all too often, if the Hive-Mind has spoken, no-one may openly gainsay it. If they do openly gainsay it, they are traitors and “no true left-winger” (which reminds me very much of the no true Scotsman fallacy). One shouldn’t be pilloried for expressing dissenting opinions which diverge from the left-wing norm. I think it ought to be possible to be a climate skeptic and a true left-winger, or a person who supports the formation of the State of Israel within its original borders and a true left-winger. I use those two examples because they are two major ways in which my own views diverge from the left-wing norm, and I’m sure in the minds of many left-wingers, this reduces me to a right-wing goon. Often, when I write posts on these issues, people on both the left and the right presume that Skepticlawyer wrote the post, not I. I don’t think that I ought automatically be put in a right-wing camp for expressing such views. The political process should surely be a dialectic, and I think it often is. One of my friends made the point that Menzies wouldn’t have remained in power so long if he hadn’t adapted certain Labor views during his tenure as Prime Minister. Labor may have been in opposition for years, but it still influenced the political process by providing a dialectic.

It interests me that, sometimes, the first people from minority groups to enter into positions of political power come from the conservative side of politics (see eg, Clarence Thomas of the SCOTUS, British PM Margaret Thatcher, Neville Bonner of the Australian Senate and recently, Ken Wyatt, our first indigenous Lower House member). So the Left pushes the conservatives to accept minorities, and the conservatives take that on board, allowing people from minority groups to succeed in conservative politics. London Mayor Boris Johnson once described this as ‘the left opens the door, but the right walks through’. It’s a push-and-pull process.

I share the values of many left-wingers, but I think I just put a slightly different emphasis on them. I really value egalitarianism. I do not want a massive gap between rich and poor, or a society with immovable classes. This is in part informed by my own background, and by my experience of the English class system during my high schooling. Part of the point in that climate change post was that if we are going to have to create a more unequal society in Australia in  order to combat climate change, where some people can afford energy and others can’t, I’d rather have climate change, and deal with the consequences when they arise. Another thing I was trying to get at in that post, perhaps unsuccessfully, was that the scepticism of people less well off than I am is directly related to the fear they have of a more unequal society, and of a feeling they have that things are out of their control and that their voices are not being heard.

That’s another thing: I abhor authoritarianism, whether it be left-wing or right-wing. I strongly believe that there is a therapeutic value in expressing one’s opinion, and being listened to rather than silenced. Incidentally, I’d like to see a lot more of that in the law, because I think the grievances of some occur when they feel that they are battling against a giant machine (whether it be a corporation or the State) which doesn’t listen to them, and which just continues on the process regardless. There is nothing more disempowering than the thought that your voice doesn’t matter and that no one is listening to you. When I used to repossess houses, I’d sometimes have defendants crying on the phone to me, saying, “You’re the first person who has listened to me, who has treated me like a human being.” That’s pretty sad, really — it had to get to me before they felt like they were being listened to. Sometimes, that’s all that people wanted: a chance to air their view of what happened. I think sometimes, they couldn’t take action until they had the feeling that they’d been heard, which may explain the “deer-in-the-headlights” effect often seen in this kind of litigation.

I think that one of the things which presented a difficulty for the Australian Labor Party in the recent election was, paradoxically, that it presented such a “cohesive” face on the surface for a lot of the time, and at the start, Rudd made much of the fact that the Liberal National Party was not “cohesive”.  To be fair to the ALP, its difficulties may have been largely caused by the operation of the Westminster system, which requires that dissent occur behind closed doors in cabinet, and the fact that it follows this process more faithfully than the LNP. However, behind closed doors, the ALP was very far from cohesive; quite the opposite, in fact. Battles over principle were, for the most part underhand, hidden affairs, as Rudd himself found out. I think the ALP would be much better off if it allowed open dissent as part of its decision-making process, rather than hiding it in the back corridors and behind closed doors. It allowed the LNP to make the “faceless men” jibe over and over. (Did anyone else get totally sick of that epithet? They have faces! It’s not like they’re those scary Japanese ghosts who pass their hand over their face, and it becomes smooth like an egg…ugh…). Can anyone tell me that Peter Garrett, then-Minister for Environment, was genuinely okay about approving the Four Mile uranium mine in South Australia in mid-2009? Cohesive-schmohesive, it just looks damned hypocritical. If one allows voices of disagreement to be heard, then decisions appear more transparent and honest. It becomes obvious that the party has thought about the matter fully. The ALP and Australia’s polity generally may need to rethink some aspects of the Westminster process.

Reducing the political view to a particular party line means that you are not representative of the views of ordinary people. If you allow people to express their conflicting opinions publicly and without ridicule, I think that ultimately, it creates a more cohesive atmosphere. I don’t seek to make everyone agree with me and do as I do, I merely seek to make them at least think about the issue. If you sideline people who express conflicting opinions just by labelling them “fascist”, “sexist”, “racist” or “stupid” then you sideline those people, and they’re unlikely to support you. Of course, some people do have fascist, sexist or racist underpinnings to their point of view, unfortunately; but often it’s vastly more complicated than that. Think of the furore surrounding the “Bigotgate” affair in the British election. I’m sure that incident contributed to British Labour’s downfall. Brown sidelined Northern working class woman Gillian Duffy as a “bigot” in comments recorded after his discussion with her about Polish workers in Britain, but when he actually spoke with her, he managed to get her to change her point of view by pointing to the large number of British workers who are in the Continent, and saying that the exchange of workers was very much mutual. Once you drilled down into it, her concerns were not so much racist as concerns about the job-safety of her family members as a result of the influx of cheap foreign labour. She was not a bigot in the way I define bigot (i.e. people whose views are unswayed by reasoned discussion).

Further, one of the things which came out of that climate change post was that, while science is not about consensus, by contrast, in a democracy, public policy is about producing a consensus that certain action is required. It is for this reason that I abhor Clive Hamilton (and George Monbiot whom he channels): these guys are essentially saying that some people’s voices should not be heard in the political consensus, and that those voices have no worth. Their own voices and those that agree with them, however, are worthy. That’s elitism, folks. And both also say that if people fail to agree with them, and there is a rise in temperature, we should have a police state to force the people to agree to the actions they advocate. Well, that’s a certain kind of left-wing, but it’s a left-wing I abhor utterly: the authoritarian left-wing. It isn’t the part of the Left that I love — the part which listens to different voices. I’d rather a moderately liberal right-winger than an authoritarian left-winger, thank you very much. Good god, I’d prefer Tony Abbott to these guys. *Shivers*

I think that, in a democracy, the Left must be able to accomodate dissent and must be able to come to terms with the fact that, even within the Left, some people will have a different ranking of particular values as important because of their particular experiences and ideas. Otherwise the Left will wither, because it will only accomodate the ideals of the few faithful, and it will become non-representative. I’m harsher on the Left when it doesn’t live up to my ideals than I am on the Right because I expect better of it. The Left shouldn’t just be about “tolerance of people who agree with me”. How can one learn if one does that? How can one grow? How boring would the world be if we all agreed with one another?

One of the things that fascinates me about people is that they can read precisely the same information and analysis as me and come to a totally different conclusion. Some on the Left seem surprised that I might read the IPCC report and come out skeptical, or that I might read Peter Singer’s book on veganism and still eat meat, but that’s something they have to come to terms with: guys, not everyone is going to respond to the same information in the same way, live with it. And just because someone has a different opinion to you doesn’t mean that they are stupid or intellectually lazy. Calling people stupid is a great way of closing people’s minds: if you say they are stupid or treat them as if they are stupid, then it is highly likely that they will focus on that rather than any legitimate arguments you might have. The question people have to ask themselves is this: are they seeking to persuade people of their argument, or are they simply seeking to parade around saying how clever they are, making it more difficult for those who disagree to speak out?

Personally I have no desire to make people think exactly the same as I do. I tell my students that I’d love to hear a different analysis in the exam — it’s so boring if you always get the same one, parroting your own views.  The reason I have continued blogging for so long is because I blog with two very intelligent women whose views differ from mine, and they keep me thinking.

All I can say in the end is, vive la différence. I hope dearly that this blog provides a forum for difference, and for different points of view. I think we’ve succeeded very well, really.


  1. Posted September 16, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    “Intellectually honest” means you make arguments you think are true, as opposed to making the arguments you are “supposed” to make and/or avoiding making arguments that you think are true that you aren’t “supposed” to make

    Well that’s everyone in parliament out then. But we knew that didn’t we.

    I honestly don’t think a lot of people involved in political discussion can tell the difference.

  2. Posted September 16, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] “(not) a lot of people … can tell the difference”.

    I think there’s a simple question, one of motives, of the person putting the position. “What outcome do you ***really*** want most of all? – advantage yourself, screw the other person, or something more universally utilitarian?”

    Good ol’ Cicero: “Cui bono”. Cuts through the crap real fast.

    At least I wouldn’t accuse the hardline climate-action-now types of specifically wanting to advantage themselves (unless perhaps they were an owner of an opportunistic “green energy” company), and I’m sure LE has utilitarian objectives. However, I’m also sure there are at least some of the coal lobby who are not so pure in their motives for their statements on these issues.

  3. Posted September 16, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Good ol’ Cicero: “Cui bono”. Cuts through the crap real fast.

    Yes and I can think of so many great crimes establishing great fortunes in my lifetime and almost no-one ever asks that question.

    When the sheep automatically bleat “Four legs good, two legs better” in Animal Farm they’re doing what the pigs want them to do without even being told. I wonder to what extent that applies to humans.

  4. Posted September 16, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Actually, I’ll hold up a beacon of what I consider intellectual honesty: “The Economist”. It proudly waves it’s good-governance capitalist flag, as what it this will generally lead to the best human outcomes, then, in particular circumstances, will go “we hate to say this, but, nationalize the bank NOW, keep it for a few years and sell it at a profit” (this was when Northern Rock was sinking like a stone).

    It’s why I read The Economist – while capitalism offends my aesthetic in general, the “this is our bias – but we are utilitarian first and give opinion on a case-by-case basis” attitude demands I respect the reporting and opinion – I have to pull it apart to disagree with it – and when it comes out with a “lefty” opinion, I get confidence in my own stance on that particular.

    (Quadrant and the Murdochs, on the other hand…)

    The respect of an “enemy” is the best type – which is one of the reasons why most of the writers and regulars here are good value for me – and dare I say, SL’s upcoming book has moved (against my aesthetic) my opinion on some things.

    I think some of the problems address in LE’s post relate to the notion of respecting a *decent* adversary, when able to respect both skill and motive. If you aren’t open to the possibility of giving that respect when it is due, it’s less likely you’ll deserve it yourself.

    Then again, being too open to the idea of respecting those with different opinions, and you will be disappointed, become cynical and inflexible yourself, giving in to knee-jerk responses.

    It again comes back to what we learn, by example, from leaders in politics and public debate – if *they* were more frequently intellectually honest, I think we *all* would be.

    Naaaa….. I’m dreaming.

  5. Posted September 16, 2010 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    s/what it this will generally/what will generally/

  6. Posted September 16, 2010 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Dave, there’s a Castle joke in there somewhere… 😉

  7. Posted September 16, 2010 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] …. yeah, probably, but i’d take me some effort.

    Actually my mention of aesthetic makes me wonder how much of *honest* debate that reconcile with difficulty, if at all, boils down to a different aesthetic.

  8. Posted September 17, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] As a matter of interest, when is the last time you read Quadrant?

  9. Posted September 17, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Probably average 1.5 issues a year of QuadRant.

  10. Posted September 18, 2010 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    Quadrant has a very wide range of contributors (including the odd prominent Judge, for example) so it seems odd to dismiss the entire content in such a way.

  11. Posted September 18, 2010 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] The occasional poems aren’t too bad, i suppose, just like the lit supp in the Oz. And there was one article I liked enough to write a blog post on it approvingly. But I’m almost certain /something/ in each issue will put me near hypertensive crisis. Still… I do Quarterly Essay with about the same frequency, with the health risk being laughing.
    But I /try/ to fair. Hell, I almost died laughing at quadrant once (but that was an article by Brendan Nelson).

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