Opinion

Richard Cooke
Comments and the discourse of distraction

At what point does a hangover become cirrhosis? Perhaps it was the revolting public kicking of Yassmin Abdel-Magied, or MP Craig Kelly’s claim that renewable energy was killing elderly people, or Rowan Dean’s “fuck off we’re full” invitation for Human Rights Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane to return to Laos. At some indeterminate point over the past month, the Australian media reached a nadir of degradation, crassness and open racism that almost inspires a kind of awe. There aren’t smart people and stupid people; there are smart times and stupid times, and this is a stupid time.

It’s not a classically stupid time, not a “perhaps we should stop putting sewage in the drinking water” period of human folly. In contrast to the volume of information available, and the scale of the challenges facing us, though, it’s hard to beat. Perhaps it’s that very complexity that has produced a sort of ironic simplicity in response, where a member of parliament reacts to a big battery like a mediaeval peasant seeing a comet for the first time. Whatever the impulse, the distance between wicked problems and the increasingly personalised and abbreviated discussion around them is starting to feel unbridgeable. 

The base currency of our discourse is now something called “comments”. You should be familiar with them, those moments where a public personality makes a statement that provokes controversy, intentional or otherwise. Q&A is a TV show designed as a Petri dish for “comments” production. Comments are not the same thing as “gaffes” in the political world, though they are related to them. Nor are they unique to Australia. They do occupy an outsized role here, though, which has created a claustrophobic and surreal environment where a deleted Facebook post can live on for months as front-page news.

How did we get here? It could be something to do with population size, which is just small enough for the players to be well recognised and just big enough for them to represent discrete factions. Perhaps it’s something to do with our love of sport, so politics becomes not a horse race but the footy.

The cowed and tired traditional media taking their lead from social media has been implicated, and so has the dominance of News Corp. The cause is obscure, but the symptoms are virulent. Old, semi-legalistic means of triaging speech are now irrelevant. Public or private, serious or joking, live or scripted – it no longer matters. If anything, unprepared “comments” are more prized, treated as Freudian slips with special revelatory power. Apologies are irrelevant and penalties arbitrary. No one really powerful, though, has suffered serious consequences for comments.

In fact, the decisive factor is not how damaging or representative a statement is, how easily it is transmitted. It is just as remarkable what sentiments don’t provoke debate, or even comment. You can advocate letting obese diabetics die from their disease, or float the end of universal suffrage, or write about Africans being cannibals who don’t understand cities – if you’re Elizabeth Farrelly, you can do all three – but so long as these suggestions are rendered in unreadable prose and directed at a bourgeois audience, no one will care.

String enough comments-based controversies together, and the national conversation begins to feel trapped at the level of gossip, an environment where even the distractions can’t become complex or sustained. When this tendency combines with Australia’s history it means remedial questions must be re-prosecuted again and again. It’s quite possible to see Andrew Bolt and Cory Bernardi reminisce fondly about the White Australia policy, ruing only that it discriminated on race and not on “culture”.

The political right likes to pretend this kind of debate is predicated on maturity. They plead immunity to offence over “comments”. According to them, this trivialised media ecosystem is the outcome of something called “outrage culture”, which took over university campuses in the 1990s and then metastasised thanks to cultural Marxism. It’s common to hear arguments over, say, female-shaped pedestrian crossing lights dismissed as hysterical and separate from a place called “the real world”. Once we were Aussie larrikins taking things not too seriously, they argue, before the thought police intervened.

This Australia never existed – it’s still the same place where the editors of Oz magazine were sentenced to prison and hard labour for pretending to wee into a fountain. Power has always concerned itself with the apparently unimportant and everyday. Arguments over South American soccer games, or who is allowed to touch a banana, or whether Jesus’s name has the letter “И” in it, have all killed tens of thousands of people. It’s no different now, when those who complain loudest about the “offenderati” will shed their thick skin and join them as soon as the subject turns to something like Anzac Day.

Even when the stakes are high, the targets are small. If the Western tradition truly is imperilled, you might expect those panicked by its decline to defend it. But the Shakespeare plays and Wagner operas and High Anglican evensongs performed somewhere in Australia almost every day aren’t turning away crowds. Instead, “traditionalists” spend their time on the internet threatening Clementine Ford with rape. They can never explain why, if she is so wrong and so crazy, she needs to be told so often, and so emphatically, and it’s because deep down her detractors really agree with her about what is important. They are fighting, usually viciously, over the same terrain.

This angry stridency comes from impotence (sometimes even of the medical variety). Take for example The Australian’s campaign against section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Noteworthy not only for being so unhinged, but so unsuccessful. More a vendetta than a campaign, the paper mentioned the legislation more than 146,000 times, often dedicating weeks’ worth of front pages to its repeal. Fellow travellers even blamed Bill Leak’s premature death on the “stress” it caused. But underneath all the noise, the assault was a failure. The mighty power of the Murdoch empire couldn’t even change a not very good piece of seldom-used legislation. Instead, it had to settle for pretending victory over a senate debate that went nowhere, before quietly giving up.

What the campaign did do successfully was waste everyone’s time, occupying just enough of the country’s intellectual bandwidth with bad faith arguments to be deleterious. Like a Minerals Council press release or a Rita Panahi article or the Trump presidency, it is really a form of trolling. It’s dangerous to believe there is some unpolitical technocratic realm where the real answers to all these problems are, if only people were nicer. But it’s equally dangerous for a media culture to centre on provoking crescendos of emotional response, even if the emotional response is admonition. Criticism en masse might create a penalty for those on the margins, or civilians dragged into the crosshairs. But applied to, say, the serial missteps of someone such as Mia Freedman, it looks more and more like part of the business model.

Call-out culture has never quite been able to work out what level of culpability individuals have for systemic oppression, and perhaps the rage is supposed to be empowering to the victim more so than to punish the perpetrator. But the victims all look exhausted; the perpetrators, not so much. It’s significant that the newest rank of serial offenders, the starting line-up of the Sky News opinion section, were not born into the political right. Rowan Dean came from advertising. Paul Murray from commercial radio. Mark Latham, well, you know. It is a P. T. Barnum-style system of incentives that has driven them to this position, and now that same path has been cleared all the way to the American presidency.

The concept of the “Two Minutes Hate” pre-dated Nineteen-Eighty Four by decades. George Orwell was able to capture the venal essence of this kind of media not because he was a prophet, but because he was a journalist. Reading the passage that introduces it still feels eerie, though. “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in,” he writes of Winston’s routine. “Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary… And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.”

It is not that hatred that feels so prescient, but the emptiness.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 22, 2017 as "Extremely loud and incredibly gross". Subscribe here.

Richard Cooke
is a journalist and writer for television. He is The Saturday Paper's sports editor.