A hot mess

Art by James Steinberg

Throughout the recent election campaign, Australians got a close-up view of the caustic effect of marketing and shallow reporting on political communication. Policy articulation was reduced to spin, slogans, and soundbites devoid of complexity and nuance. Journalists outcompeted each other with trivial ‘gotcha’ questions and an obsession with minor gaffes, edging out serious and impartial analysis of policy differences. All sure-fire signs of a political malaise, as Hugh Atherton puts it.

We’ve grown accustomed to hyper-partisan campaigns that mirror the combative ‘warrior politics’ of parliamentary discourse. Civil debate, as Waleed Aly says, has become “so thoroughly decomposed that it barely resembles its origins as the central pillar of democracy”. Political parties have urged allegiance to the ideological values of their ‘tribe’, while failing to acknowledge the contestability of ideas.

In short, it’s been a hot mess.

Cartoon by Mischa Richter

But is change now afoot?

In his victory speech on election night, prime minister-elect Anthony Albanese spoke of seeking “common purpose” and promoting “unity and optimism, rather than fear and division”. The quest for common ground or shared understanding is a lynchpin of healthy dialogue. It’s one of the elements we most urgently need to restore the functionality of our democracy at a time when polarised thinking has taken over our political discourse.

It’s no accident that the quest for shared understanding is also a basic tenet of collaborative philosophical inquiry. At The Philosophy Club, we prepare young people for deliberative democracy by encouraging them to value and to pursue shared understanding with their peers. Rather than avoiding controversial issues as a matter of politeness, or gingerly skirting around differences of opinion, students learn to communicate across the divide with care, empathy, vulnerability and intellectual humility. We help students consider the plurality of concerns, positions and reasons they nurture. We make space for negotiating and reconciling their differences as far as possible. And this is how we begin to build strong communities; communities that are resilient to fracturing along the fault-lines of ideological difference.

Art by Geoff McFetridge

Free thinking within a supportive culture, generous acknowledgement of common ground, charitable interpretation of other views, de-escalated articulation of disagreements, respectful expression of criticisms, willingness to concede points, a spirit of conviviality: these are the dynamics that open up a space for substantive discussion and shared understanding. These are the dynamics that restore individuals’ trust in each other as well-intentioned, reliable and reasonable counterparts, rather than as malevolent ‘others’ who are out of touch with reality or unworthy of engagement.

In our work with students, we must help them both value this kind of dialogic argument, and practise the patience, attentiveness, reflection and self-correction needed to do it justice.

The more readily we accept sloganeering, shallowness of inquiry, and adversarial speech, the more we devalue deep understanding, genuine dialogue and careful argumentation. Nuanced discourse relies on people’s capacity and willingness to properly hear each other out, to formulate subtle and sometimes complex arguments, communicate them sensitively, and evaluate them in a framework of evidence and alternatives.

We should insist on these things as new norms of public discourse.

If this week’s election result shows anything, it’s that when existing norms become untenable, we collectively demand better.

Art by Rachel Gannon


The Philosophy Club works with teachers and students to develop a culture of critical and creative thinking through collaborative enquiry and dialogue.

2 responses to “A hot mess

    • Hi Norah, ‘hopeful but not confident’ is indeed the mood. First Dog on the Moon nailed it the other day: ‘We are exhausted but still basking in the relief that washed over us on Saturday night… If we had dropped this one it would have all been over. Now there is a tiny wretched skerrick of hope. Will the ALP stuff it up? Of course! But we can worry about that next week… I will never forget the tears of joy we wept at the mere possibility of compassion and the end of cruelty as a virtue.”

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