I make no secret of my opinion that Q&A is the worst show on Australian television. In a previous Crikey piece, I blamed this on our increasingly anti-intellectual culture, calling the show:

“… the dully predictable, preening, posturing spectacle that passes for public debate in this country, accompanied by demented quipping and ranting on Twitter. Q&A is just the worst. Imagine if people actually fed their souls and read a book or watched a film for that hour instead.”

The most depressing thing about Q&A is how little the personnel and issues under debate seem to matter from week to week. Because it reduces the notion of public debate to ritualised grandstanding and point-scoring, it’s spectacularly ill-equipped to be surprising or intellectually challenging.

Thank god for Slavoj Zizek, then — the Slovenian philosopher and critical theorist, in Sydney for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.

Zizek is a genuinely exciting and influential thinker, at home penning scholarly texts and op-eds on pop culture and global politics. A Marxist who has called for a return to Communism, he’s not afraid to be unfashionable or contrary; he also married a model and has written advertising copy in a 2003 catalogue for deliberately provocative fashion chain Abercrombie & Fitch.

He’s shaggy, bearded and dishevelled, with an ebullient lisp, a habit of gesticulating wildly and an enthusiastic, expansively anecdotal manner reminiscent of your eccentric uncle fired up about his pet topic.

Basically, he’s the kind of guy who’d never be on Q&A. Except last night he was, along with incisively clever BBC journalist Kate Adie, British gonzo writer Jon Ronson, outspoken Egyptian political commentator Mona Eltahawy … and The Australian’s ill-informed numpty, Greg Sheridan.

Any other week, Sheridan would have seized Q&A’s somnolently ritualistic structure of respectful turn-taking to make all manner of assertions, absolutely unchallenged. The joy of last night’s show was watching Eltahawy tell him: “I cannot believe you spew such nonsense!”

When Eltahawy brought up that religion is institutionalised in US foreign policy, Sheridan accused her of making up a quote from George W Bush, then Ronson chipped in that actually, she wasn’t. Champagne television!

It was also quite eye-opening to see Tony Jones struggling to maintain order among participants unused to his usual dry “we’ll take that as a comment” style. Trying to interrupt Zizek in full flow came across as petulant bullying — at one stage, when Zizek overrode Jones’s attempt to direct the discussion to Ronson, Jones snapped, “You’re not Jon.” When a questioner asked that Zizek answer a question, he promptly flipped Tony Jones the bird.

But the best part of all was watching proper intellectuals — people who spend their lives thinking broadly and critically about the world around them. Whether or not you agreed with the panellists, it was electrifying to see them speaking insightfully and passionately about big issues and ideologies, abandoning Q&A’s usual numbingly parochial focus on federal government policy and giving the usual pack of suit-wearing Young Liberals in the audience very little to jeer at.

It was possible to enjoy the show simply as theatre. The panel constantly interrupted each other, refused to answer the questions at hand, and engaged in extensive anecdotes, such as Eltahawy’s “WTF?” nipple-cripple moment in front of Gaddafi.

(Everyone seemed to have a Gaddafi story, even Greg Sheridan. Tony Jones’s “I’m going to interrupt you there …” seemed to carry an unspoken “… because I don’t have a Gaddafi story.”)

But the really fascinating thing was seeing the bewilderment with which the #qanda tweetstream responded.

“This #qanda is weird. Heavily accented panelists are difficult to deal with. Anecdotes seem to go foreverrrrrrrrr,” tweeted one observer.

The Twitter commentariat is possibly the worst thing about Q&A. What began as a well-meant gesture of inclusiveness has deteriorated into a scramble to be zingy enough for one’s tweet to be displayed onscreen. Snark is the enemy of intellectual rigour because it refuses to engage with an idea, preferring to reject it through mockery. It’s quite possible to watch Q&A without properly listening to it, concentrating instead on collecting retweets for your asinine gags about the panellists and questioners.

Perhaps the most dispiriting thing about Q&A’s tweetstream is the moronic objectification of the participants. Disagreeing with someone’s opinions or politics means dismissing them as fat, ugly, badly groomed or otherwise disgusting. Meanwhile, anyone who comes across as halfway reasonable or persuasive is declared to be “hot”, a “crush” or a “babe”. It’s as if our culture is so libidinised that people find it impossible to admire or dispute someone’s ideas in intellectual terms.

“We are entering a strange era where hedonism is the ruling ideology,” Zizek told Q&A last night. “My psychoanalytic friends are telling me that people today, more and more, feel guilty, not if they give way to their perverse desires, but if you don’t enjoy [them].”

Meanwhile on Twitter, people were making Damir Dokic jokes and Boris Yeltsin jokes. You know, ethnic drunkard jokes. At least Ben Pobjie compared him to English drunkard Oliver Reed. And did you know that Adie looks a lot like Helen Mirren? WELL, SHE DOES!

There were more than a few sniffy tweets expressing sentiments such as: “Dangerous ideas — boring/irrelevant/stale ideas, more like!”

Nope. It’s regular Q&A that’s boring, irrelevant and stale. On the show next week: Julie Bishop. Again.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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