Nov 27, 2018

Opinion Piece – Quit the Echo Chamber and Start a Debate – Tuesday, 27 November, 2018

Here’s a tip for improving the quality of public debate and government in Australia: put your mobile telephone or tablet aside and talk to people.

Social media has revolutionised human communication and is bringing people closer together like never before.

But its big downside is becoming increasingly evident — social media is leading to a situation where genuine debate about important issues is being replaced by a constant reinforcement of people’s existing opinions, in isolation from the views of others.

Social media sources such as Facebook and Twitter incorporate ­algorithms that encourage users to engage with the content of people who share their world view.

If users are exposed to someone whose views they do not share, they can choose to exclude that person from their feed.

As a result, many people are not just dismissing alternative views, but actively choosing not to hear those views. Australians are denying themselves access to facts or arguments that may allow them to reconsider or assess the basis or value of their own views.

This should be an issue of great concern for progressive activists.

If our aim is to persuade others to a particular view, our starting point must be an understanding of, and respect for, their existing views.

We need to talk with people who disagree with us. We must engage, debate and advance. We need to argue our case in every forum and at every opportunity. If you have faith in your ideals and policies, there is nothing to fear from debating them, particularly with those who disagree.

What’s more, if one of the distinguishing characteristics of being on the Left of the political spectrum is a faith in humanity, we have an obligation to engage as broadly as possible.

Recent events here and overseas illustrate the way in which people are becoming less aware of alternative views than they may have been before social media.

A year ago, Australians voted in favour of marriage equality, based on a strong campaign of ­activism across the community.

Progressive campaigners were understandably delighted with the result but many were amazed that in some Labor seats, solid votes against marriage equality were returned, in the same way many progressives in the US still can’t understand how Donald Trump won the 2016 election.

The fact is that many Americans, like many Australians, believe that economic growth and prosperity are not reflected in their quality of life. As a political opportunist, Trump capitalised on this sense of alienation, creating an alliance between the hard Right and dis­affected working people who, perversely, the hard Right doesn’t want to help.

Political progressives must reach out to such people, otherwise we risk amplifying the sense of alienation that develops when people feel their views are ignored or are not factored into decision-making and debate.

Internationally, this polarisation in global politics has seen the demise of many of the historically successful progressive political parties such as France’s Socialist Party, PASOK in Greece, the Partito Democratico in Italy, the Social Democrats in Germany and many other affiliates of the Socialist International.

In many countries, parties of the radical Right have emerged with disillusioned working-class people as their social base.

To win these people back, progressives cannot afford to retreat into a comfort zone where we constantly reinforce each other’s views while shielding ourselves from other perspectives.

We must engage with working people to ensure change benefits them as change occurs, just as we must engage with business to promote employment and fairness.

Recent Australian political history offers a road map for re-engagement.

After leading Labor to victory in 1983, Bob Hawke focused on consensus building. Through the Accord, Hawke had business and trade union leaders sit at the same table and recognise their shared interests.

Hawke created, in word and deed, the sense that we could best serve our national interest by accepting each other’s different perspectives and finding ways forward through compromise.

Ruthless partisanship is a failed model. It produces plenty of heat but no light. It saps your energy but gets you nowhere.

As my political mentor, former Labor minister Tom Uren, was fond of saying: “If you want to promote change, you’ve got to take the people with you.”

This piece was first published in today’s edition of The Australian