When fair arguments are in short supply


There seems to be a dearth of people who actually think these days.

Wow, provocative statement. Who am I to think I am among the elite? Because of course, I do regard myself as a thinker, and I’m seriously frustrated by what appears to me be a lack of ability by others to sift through rubbish and find the truth.

Because there is a lot of rubbish these days. Fake news might be relatively new, but false arguments and smoke screens have been around for a long time, along with the tendency that people pay attention to what they want to believe, and ignore what they don’t want to believe.

At regular intervals, I dialogue with my friends/contacts on Facebook. And regularly, I despair that anyone is prepared to think. Now don’t confuse what I’m saying – I didn’t say I despair that people agree with me. That’s not the point – but that they don’t think.

Any of you with any experience of Facebook are probably about now shaking your heads and saying “Why would you expect anything other than that on Facebook?” For you would know, as I do, that to attempt rational discussion on Facebook is akin to banging your head hard against a brick wall, repeatedly and at regular intervals. Point taken – I agree, though I’m probably still going to bang my head again every now and then.

But what undid me recently was a dialogue I had with someone who I respect. They are intelligent and knowledgable, and we agree more than we disagree on things. I would describe him as left wing (but not extreme) whereas I regard myself as centre-left. I also personally don’t believe in demonising those I oppose, and will try to apply fairness and logic to their point of view, and even to arguments raised against them. My friend, not so much. I have yet to see him grudgingly agree that an opponent has been unfairly treated. But I can assure you, no matter how bad your opponent is, you can’t believe everything that is said against them.

I’ll try not to bore you with too much detail of our dialogue – just enough to create a frame of reference. Our PM, Malcolm Turnbull, recently announced changes to the Australian citizenship test, and to be frank, it sounds to me like he is trying to emulate Donald Trump a little, in order to appease some hard right wingers here in Australia. I’m pretty sure my friend would agree.

He (my friend) posted a video provided by a prominent activist group in Australia, showing Malcolm struggling, very badly, to try and answer a question about the test. The question had more to do with the administration of the test than its content, but the post linked the (very embarrassing) answer to their view that the PM couldn’t defend the test against the accusations of racism.

Well, full marks for amusement and poking fun, but zero in terms of accuracy. I made a comment to that effect, and all of a sudden it was on for young and old. My friend strongly defended the group and its reliability as a source of information, which surprised me.

I thought it was a conversation worth having, so I went on to state that the activist group who made the post often made posts and videos that were light on truth. They were no doubt very effective in cutting through to their audience, but I could not trust them to be a reliable or reasonable source of information. What surprised me again, was that my friend ending up dodging the issue and restating his conviction that the citizenship test changes were racist, a point that I had had no real problem agreeing with in the first place.

I hope I haven’t lost you in all that description! But it does bother me that groups can post videos that are inflammatory and inaccurate (even if I agree with their point of view!) and that intelligent people can’t see it. They don’t want to look for the truth, or if they do, they are not prepared to critically examine the evidence.

That makes me wonder if I am a bit of a freak. Am I being too clever for my own good? Am I splitting hairs? Should I just go along with the crowd if I agree with their point, but don’t agree with how they get there?

There is another friend I have, who is probably smarter than me, certainly knows a whole lot more, and is excellent at separating a good argument from a poor one. But even he recently threw objectivity out the window about a guest who appeared on a respected intellectual TV panel (“Q and A” for those who are interested). He basically ranted against Q and A for having an ultra right wing individual on the show, when firstly, the guy didn’t say anything provocatively right wing, and secondly, if he had, didn’t he have as much right as a left winger to have his say? Q and A should, and does, have varied views and opinions represented on its panel.

So I‘m a bit flummoxed. It seems to me that the vast majority of people, no matter how smart they are, just gravitate to one point of view and then stay there, taking pot shots at the other side. If that’s true, then we’re all in for an increasingly bumpy ride. Hang on folks – polarised communities and points of view are likely to be the norm, and here for a long time.