This, as I am certain you have noticed, is an era of great vulgarity in communication. Our most popular television programs include Embarrassing Bodies, a low documentary which regularly exposes the prolapsed anuses of Britain, and perhaps our best-known local lifestyle celebrity is Pete Evans, a man who has also lately turned public attention to the fundament. When local commentators of note are not literally focused on the latrine, they flush away all the restraint of a previous age via their social media accounts, and we see the stars of Fairfax or of News Corp openly call each other some of the worst words in English, and even occasionally wish the other dead.
It would, of course, be true hypocrisy for a vulgarian like me to urge for a new civility. I acquired the habit of filth at an early age, and there is no Finishing School so firm that it could cleanse me. Further, we know that obscene speech is hardly new and has, at times, like the French Revolution, proved politically effective. Even if there were no moral case to make for jokes about the genitals of leaders, though, the case for greater civility in speech would remain a pointless one to make. You can’t tell entire populations, individuals or groups to speak well and expect them to answer with anything but “fuck off”. When such moral injunctions are made, they are only likely to produce more cursing.
This is an age when the world’s most powerful political figure uses his Twitter account to call the leaders of other states schoolyard names, where terms like “fascist” or “Nazi” are wielded by his opponents so often and uncritically that they no longer signify the horror that they should, and one in which a man can easily stand before a sign that names the prime minister of Australia a “bitch” and himself become a prime minister.
Let’s agree, then, that the hope for civil Western speech is dead, perhaps even agree that the kind of “respectful debate” or tasteful wit for which so many publicly long, never really lived anywhere much outside the work of philosophy, or the novels of Nancy Mitford. To hope for mass culture to reflect the sort of nice speech that was only ever uttered by those who acquired it in elite conditions is futile. For centuries in the West, the overwhelming majority could not read, let alone speak politely to the thoughts of Jeremy Bentham, or whoever.
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We may have historical record of great men writing graciously about urgent moral questions. What we have scant record of is those millions enslaved in mines and factories and fields who were, I’ll bet, not speaking often in the minutes between hard labour and sleep of whether the ends were justified by the means, or the other way ‘round.
You want liberal democracy? You got it. Its speech must engage most, and most are either working long hours, or worrying for long hours about how to find work. Paid labour and underemployment are difficult and time-consuming. Higher education is expensive and time-consuming. Between the search for work, the grind of work or the increasingly vocational nature of study — I have met very few commerce graduates who show any signs at all of training in “respectful debate” — the speech for which we long but rarely utter cannot take root.
This is not, for a minute, to say that most people are stupid. Most people simply have time to interact with nothing but stupid speech. I am of the optimistic view that it takes just one or two deep interactions with true argument for the nature of thought to reveal itself. If you are fortunate enough to be exposed to it, philosophy can easily, and very naturally, become a compulsion for anyone. We are not exposed to it. Which doesn’t stop politicians — who, if they were ever themselves exposed to the elegant shape of argument, have clearly forgotten what they learned — from urging for “respectful debate”.
It doesn’t stop media commentators either. From Andrew Bolt to the most earnest writers at The Guardian, we read about the need for elevated speech, considered argument, etc. In both cases, and we see this so keenly on the “respectful debate” around the same-sex marriage survey, the assumption of the commentator is always that they are engaged in good speech, and if they are not, well, it was the bad behaviour of the other side that made them lose their temper. If only you would talk to me in the way I would talk to you if you weren’t such an idiot/snowflake/Nazi, then we could have a “respectful debate”.
Politicians show us very little respect. They have created or permitted precisely the conditions — wage stagnation, long work hours, mortgage stress, the alienation of underemployment, unaffordable education — in which the tools or the hope for “respectful debate” are unavailable to most. And most media commentators simply start from a foundation not of thought, but of antagonism. They rarely even “debate” matters of grave importance, but simply “debate” the way they are spoken about. And so, we have this peculiar set of local commentators who offer little but vulgarity, and explain their vulgarity as necessary, because the other side made them do it. I mean, please, could someone point me to that foundational text by either Chris Kenny or Clementine Ford that was not written only in the terms of obscene opposition, and shows any sign whatsoever of wishing to engage in reason?
Rage and vulgarity have their place, of course. Showing a middle finger to the other side is sometimes very necessary. But, hey, now in our purportedly democratic institutions of government and press, that’s all we’ve got. Most everyone with a public platform or policy role is making like they are the true voice of the resistance, the opponent of the marginalised or the warrior against the purported menace of the “politically correct”, and so few have legitimate belief in the power of sound argument.
Still. Most everyone seems to want it. Most everyone appears to believe that a nation full of Respectful Debaters is somehow possible, even under the harshest everyday conditions that Australian workers have encountered in many decades. These arguments we read so often about the necessity of free speech, the need for respectful speech, the need to control speech by law or not to control it, etc, have begun to seem almost religious to me. We have faith in a thing that does not take place, and cannot take place without a radical re-organisation of the way this nation is governed. And this faith is itself evangelically declared by hypocritical preachers who show no talent or interest whatsoever in the beautiful speech for which they hope.
In this moment, this hypocrisy is so evident. We have a Prime Minister who urges for “respectful debate” around a mail survey that he knew very well could only produce its opposite. He was warned, very explicitly by qualified advocates for mental health, that this would happen, that he was creating conditions hostile to many Australians.
In my view, this is a very low point for “respectful debate”. Not only will many LGBTIQ Australians suffer badly from all this “respect”. The institutions of press and of politics have suffered a loss as well. They do not seem to know that we are watching them talk among themselves about who is the least and most “respectful”, so utterly separated in their reflections from the real-life consequences of this, or any other, debate. These appalling cultural warriors who dispose of any regard for the LGBTIQ community. These shallow “allies” who assume a posture of great compassion far less to advance the life of the nation, much more to mark themselves as desirable commodities for future sale to purportedly “respectful” publications.
A few years ago, I would have implored all policymakers and commentators to learn the skill of true argument, which is, by its very nature, respectful. I have lost hope for these zealots, so sure that their own speech is transformative. My hope is for others. Those who are sick of the emptiness of speech about speech. Those who crave a better nation where we each have the time and the means to argue meaningfully and democratically about many matters, and so to truly progress as individuals and as a society.