Fair fighting in the public square

Wednesday 12 September 2012 7:16 AM

published here at On Line Opinion 

Where two or more people are caught in a seemingly intractable dispute yielding only mounting frustration, the first word on the lips of a half decent mediator will be ‘listening’. The parties will be asked how much of it they're each doing. Most commonly an answer is unnecessary, since real listening is nigh impossible when everyone’s talking. Relationship counsellors sometimes suggest rules for ‘fair fighting’. One of the basics is a 3-step listening exercise: Party ‘A’ speaks without interruption; party ‘B’ speaks back what they think they heard; party ‘A’ confirms or clarifies. 

Some ‘fair fighting’ rules would go a long way in our national life right now. We're not merely having a tiff. We're hard at it on several fronts simultaneously, and it’s fair to suggest that not much listening is happening in any direction. There’s the treatment of asylum seekers, the nature and definition of marriage, the rights of indigenous Australians, the sharing of the national wealth, educating the next generation, religion in state schools, and even the very future of the planet. And there are probably more. That’s a lot of talking, and some of it’s barely started. Let me submit, therefore, a range of observations and suggestions for fair fighting in the public square. If instant communication’s the prize, then our 24/7 news cycle is a logical winner. However real communication comprises an even balance of speaking and listening, and tweets and headlines – the new media of choice – are a limited substitute for the former and thoroughly inadequate for the latter. 

The mythical moment when the stream of ready information burst the banks of our consciousness, came long before Twitter. But now the stream is diluvian and rising exponentially. Time will not allow us to follow the links or read much below the headline. So for most of us, the tweet has become the story. If the headline fails to capture the heart of the narrative, as it inevitably will time and again, then listening will not be served. And when listening goes, respect and trust go with it. Sub-editors owe it to the public to put clarity before cleverness in headlining. We all owe it to one another to seek thoughtful clarification before suspending relations and wheeling out the guillotine. 

Secondly, we'd do well to avoid hasty conclusions about what lies in the heart of the speaker. Despite what we too commonly read in opinion columns, few if any of us know much about the inner thoughts, plans or feelings, even of some people we're close to. Few political commentators, for instance, really know the inner motives or agendas of Gillard, Rudd, Abbott or Turnbull. Yet we read half-page columns daily, predicated on such assumptions. When we're all psychic, reasoned political discourse is challenging enough. But passions are considerably more volatile when the subject is something nearer to the heart, such as the nature and definition of marriage. Into that mix must be added one of the more perplexing lines of thinking to take root in our culture, the notion that disagreeing with the way someone lives or behaves is fundamentally born of fear or hatred. A minute’s reflection on the art of parenting alone, ought to at least cast doubt on that premise. Yet it shatters trust through our community almost daily, and nowhere more so than in discussion of same-sex relationships. That in large measure underlay Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen’s recent plea on the ABC’s Q&A for “… a respectful discussion on these matters …”. Such a discussion is possible only when all parties are willing to suspend judgement to allow patient, mutual, and genuine listening.

Lastly, perhaps the most disturbing latter day intrusion to our democracy is censorship. Censorship used to be state-directed constraints on four-letter words and explicit or violent screen images. Now it’s source is as much street level, in the form of calls for restrictions on the expression of opinion. Every time (and it’s hardly often) a major newspaper such as The Age publishes a piece which makes a case for the ‘wrong’ side of a major theme in national life, such as the mining tax, religion in state schools, or climate change, bloggers and letter writers will demand an end to the pollution of the public consciousness with such allegedly ‘unenlightened’ ideas. George Orwell might wonder whether to laugh or cry. But what matters more is the health of community discourse. Whether the opinion in question is majority or minority held, or by what proportion, is largely irrelevant. If we didn’t essentially believe that the healthiest societies are those built on equal opportunity, we'd have found something more efficient than democracy a long time ago. A democracy cannot remain stable or mature without the right to be heard and respected, remaining universal. At any given point in the continuing national conversation, any one or more of these major subjects will be at the fore and on the front page. Right now, same sex marriage is at centre stage. We could maintain the prevailing trend of lazy headlines, character attacks and one-word labels, to the thunderous applause of the gallery. That strategy, however, is long on adrenalin and short on trust. Alternatives? Well, there’s always listening.