[O]ne does not go about identifying the weaknesses of what another person says in order to prove that one is always right, but one seeks instead as far as possible to strengthen the other’s viewpoint so that what the other person has to say becomes illuminating. Such an attitude seems essential to me for any understanding at all to come about. This is nothing more than an observation. It has nothing to do with an ‘appeal’ and nothing at all to do with ethics. Even immoral beings try to understand one another. Hans Georg Gadamer
As I was driving to the airport on Thursday night I listened to this exquisitely ghastly specimen of the emptiness of modern political life. Patricia Karvelas is interviewing Assistant Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham. It’s a contest not a conversation – which is fairly par for the course.
But it’s an unusual kind of contest. Because Karvelas sees it as her role to disrupt the Assistant Minister in whatever way she can. Constant interruptions are par for the course too. She begins by asking him a question which, according to the rules of political combat the Minister can’t answer straightforwardly. In announcing some help for manufacturing industry in Geelong and elsewhere “Is the coalition just trying to sandbag” seats where it’s become now “desperately vulnerable”.
So here’s a situation where the Government spokesman has come on to talk about how good his policy is. You’d expect a hostile interview to be one in which the spokesperson’s case that it’s a good policy might be challenged. But instead the interviewer takes the interview in directions that the spokesman, as a spokesman, is unable to discuss in any bona fide way without being seen by all and sundry (including the media) as doing his job badly.
So he begins his reply with “not at all”, and then tries to get back to why he’s there. He rattles off a few more talking points arguing his book – the government is trying “deliver the policies that Australia needs” and makes the very valid point that major Ford and Mitsubishi closures occurred under the previous Government so it’s a wider point than that. All fair enough – and utterly dull, predictable and uninformative. This is a conversation on auto-pilot.
Then he points to what he argues are good employment numbers, saying employment is the highest it’s ever been (in total numbers of employed that is). Now we’re having some kind of statement made on some of the merits of the situation. Some information – however tendentious is starting to leak through the talking points. The beginning of a discussion which might inform us and help us decide what we think? Not a bit of it.
Karvelas doesn’t challenge her interviewees facts or interpretation, or push the spokesperson towards a less partial position. She just starts arguing black against the spokesman’s white. He finds a way to quote the figures in as favourable light as possible and she then reels off a litany of ways in which they can be read unfavourably. She picks up some Opposition talking points that, at 800,000 people and 6.3% of the workforce, unemployment is “at crisis level isn’t it?”.
And on it goes. If you were hoping to learn anything other than the two sides equally misleading talking points, you’d be sadly disappointed. Over almost fifteen minutes the interview goes precisely nowhere as the journalist and the spokesperson go through their paces. This is just another artefact of our modern world of bullshit (in the technical sense that we understand it here at Club Pony). It presents a ritual of sense-making without any sense actually being made or even intended to be made. Here we have a simulacrum of an argument about the state of the world in which the two disputants disagree but they don’t disagree about anything other than the spin they will arbitrarily impose on the facts – according to the side of the debate they are already committed to – with the added rider that, in the case of the journalist it’s all in brackets. If a spokesman for another cause were on the show, she’d go and look up his opponents’ talking points and parrot them back at him.