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.
Early one summer morning, a young Australian philosophy graduate was awoken by a phone call. It was the eminent professor David Lewis, calling from Princeton University’s philosophy department. “You’ve been admitted to our graduate program,” Lewis said. “Do you have any questions?” Still in the fog of sleep and desperate to think of something to ask, the student blurted out: “How many Australians are in the department?” After an uncomfortably long pause, Lewis replied: ‘Depends how you count Australians.’ This anecdote, recounted by the erstwhile student Alan Hayek, shows that even the most commonplace concepts can turn out to be polyvalent. Especially if you let a philosopher loose on them.
Does dialogue work to harmonise conflicting views, or does it simply entrench differences? According to extensive research in the psychology of polarised opinion, the answer is discouraging: when people of any ideological stripe encounter opposing views and evidence, their beliefs grow even more divergent. Hearing from the other side seems to make people double down on their original positions.