Soft Censorship

Is there a ‘counter-cultural conspiracy’ to keep conservative Christian opinion out of the media?

Political activism is more about mobilizing existing attitudes than it is about cultivating new ones. As a result, one of the best ways to influence public opinion is to keep views you dislike from reaching a receptive audience. The first line of defense is to ignore them – to refuse to use the people who hold them as sources for news stories. The second line of defense is to ridicule the people who hold the opinion – to portray them as ignorant, self interested, or foolish. If these fail then the third line of defense is to attack the opinion as morally indefensible. The aim is to avoid a public debate with your opponents.

These techniques work because most of the public consume opinion rather than producing it. Academics, newspaper columnists, talk back radio hosts, politicians, political activists, and celebrities produce and distribute opinions while the audience chooses which ones they want to adopt as their own. In the same way that most consumers don’t design their own clothes, cars, or houses, most respondents to opinion polls do not create their own attitudes – they buy them ‘off the rack.’

Soft censorship is the practice of keeping attractive opinions from winning support by keeping them off the public agenda. Sometimes the process goes wrong. For years there was a pool of voters who were receptive to restrictions on Asian immigration and an end to Aboriginal welfare spending. The major parties knew that these were the policies some voters wanted but neither of them wanted then on the table. During the 1996 Federal campaign the Liberal Party dropped Pauline Hanson in an effort to keep her opinions out of the media. As it turned out, it was too late. Hanson got so much free media that she was able to create a new political party and win seats in both state and Federal campaigns. The more the media and Hanson’s opponents picked on her as an ignorant bigot the more some people identified with her.

Normally things don’t get out hand. Most of the public don’t spend a lot of time reading and thinking about political issues. They are more likely to be thinking about how to pay for their children’s orthodontics than they are to be thinking about the impact of the Free Trade Agreement. Whether they form an opinion or not will depend on whether they see or hear opinions presented in the media and whether anybody (like a pollster) asks them what their opinion is. This was Philip Converse‘s great contribution to political science – the idea that "large portions of the electorate do not have meaningful beliefs, even on issues that have formed the basis for intense political controversy among elites for substantial periods of time." Rather than pre-existing political opinions, what most people have are predispositions to form opinions.

Theorists as diverse as Pierre Bourdieu and John Zaller have written about the way elites are pick and choose which of the public’s predispositions to activate. In his essay ‘Public Opinion Does not Exist‘ Bourdieu argues that people have "a system of implicit values" which they have "internalized from childhood and from which they generate answers to very different types of questions." Similarly, in his book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, John Zaller defines ‘political predispositions as "individual level traits that regulate the acceptance or non-acceptance of the political communications that the person receives." Like Bourdieu, Zaller argues that values are the most important of these predispositions and that predispositions are largely out of the reach of elite influence.

The combination of relatively stable predispositions and limited attention to political issues is what creates the potential for elite advocacy and activism. Rather than thinking of elites’ the way paranoid right wing columnists do (as a kind of taxpayer subsidized new class conspiracy) it is more useful to think of them as anyone who has a disproportionate amount of access to other people’s attention. The leaders of major political parties, high rating talk-back radio hosts, and editors and commentators in the media. Together these elite groups can sometimes have strikingly different predispositions to those of the general public. And much of what passes for public debate is actually members of these groups fighting it out to decide where the limits of respectable opinion lie – where ridicule and moral condemnation end and serious debate begins.

A example of this is Angela Shanahan’s recent Canberra Times piece ‘Onward, Aussie Christian soldiers’ (B7 23/10/04). Shanahan believes that while many Australians are receptive to the views of groups like Family First a "counter-cultural conspiracy" keeps their ideas out of the media. "Christian soldiers are on the war path," Shanahan says, "because they are frustrated over being ignored."

The inability to take religion seriously is the real log in the eye of the commentators who were formed by the secular left. Stuck in a spiritually arid world of their own making, they have tried to marginalize and exclude religion by presenting it as the opiate of a few deluded conservative nutters.

Gerard Henderson took a similar line in the in the Sydney Morning Herald. Jones kicked off an interview with Family First’s chairman Peter Harris by asking “Do you see the hand of God in this election result?”. Henderson saw this as an attempt to ridicule Harris and discredit his opinions. According to Henderson Christians "have become the convenient targets of
scorn" for journalists like Jones.

Shanahan goes further by arguing that there is an “anti-Christian philosophical offensive” taking place in the media:

The offensive takes place in sophisticated realms – in the secular press and at scientific and ethical conferences where utilitarians such as Peter Singer prevail. It is loudly proclaimed by opinion page contributors such as in-vitro fertilisation researcher John McBain, who has compared the Catholic hierarchy with the Taliban. And it caricatures the interpreters of the Christian tradition as Trounson did in an interview for The Weekend Australian Magazine as "thin-lipped old men". Ultimately, it is about the competing voices that try to make themselves heard in a free society about what are loosely referred to as values.

Shanahan believes that progressive elites are trying to "pick and choose what the church is allowed to talk about." Christian leaders who cross the boundaries set for them are punished with ridicule and moral condemnation.

In the United States right wing Christian journalists like Bob Case claim that all Christians want is to be allowed access to the mainstream media. Talking about his campaign to push Christian perspectives into the mainstream Case says that "The homosexuals are our role model in this… "They had the same problems we do twenty, twenty-five years ago – a despised minority hiding in the closet, and all the stories in the media looked to point out their weaknesses."

But despite these claims it is hard to accept that this is all activists like Case are after. If there were more conservative Christians in universities, parliaments, and the media wouldn’t they use the same techniques to silence people who argued for gay marriage? Wouldn’t they ignore, mock, and demonize their opponents? Under the guise of protecting the family, isn’t what these activists really want is to deny legal recognition and respectability to homosexual relationships?

Is there a conspiracy to keep conservative Christian opinions out of the mainstream media? Or do journalists have a responsibility to discourage opinions which inflame prejudice?

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David Tiley
2022 years ago

The difference between gays and “Christians” 25 years ago is that being gay was illegal and they were persecuted. It is just nonsense to compare the two. But that is an aside.

There’s a nomenclature question here. This is not an “anti-Christian” offensive, and the Family First activists are pushing a bolshevik lie. They are in fact a tiny minority in the larger Christian menshevik world; that larger community is treated with respect and given access to both news and op-ed pages. As does the Catholic Church in its Pellite avatars.

I am always amazed by the way the mainstream Christians tolerate the hijacking of their religion by fundamentalist nutbags.

In my own social democrat world view, a certain kind of “elite” did take over the economics debate from the late ’70’s onwards. You could probably track it accurately by measuring the changing frequency of the word “reform” in the newspapers, and what it was applied to. A time in which the actions of government lost legitimacy, and deregulation became an a priori virtue.

So the process of reframing the debate, finding new “experts” and delegitimising contrary opinion from a minority position not shared as a “system of implicit values” worked very well in that instance for the victors.

One of the early manoevers is to claim persecution while simultaneously shaming, mocking and de-employing your opponent. The fundies are trying that now. Fortunately they don’t have a real power base compared to either the mainstream Christians, the Libs or even the Union movement.

Unfortunately, the social democratic centre has been undermined by people who do have power. Hence our newspapers, and the national broadcasters. This will get worse.

The trick in fighting the fundies is to stop them speaking for the rest of the Churches. If mainstream Christianity can’t do that, then its reputation will suffer badly in the longer term in a secular, scientific society.

2022 years ago

Pell got onto this subject today in his Sun Telly column. I think that those on the religous right feel that (for whatever grievances real or imagined) that the religious politicians (and politics) should get a free ride.

As I have said, I have no problems with a polly stating that his/her beliefs result from the religous convictions. What I have a problem with (as Pell did today) is stating that because their beliefs are borne from regligous conviction they have a special case and the media should respect that.

The US has a myth that the whole media is a liberal athiest communist plot out to get christians. Glad to some Australian pundits are going that way as well. This is progress!

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

David Tiley is right. The ugly combination of self-conferred victim status and vicious persecution and suppression of any dissenting opinion is very familar to observers of blogospheric RWDBs. Go and check out the nonsense the lovely Tim Blair is orchestrating against Guardian journalists at the moment. Shanahan and Henderson are just recycling the same myth the Right tell themselves (and anyone gullible enough to fall for it) continually, and deploying it in aid of the pentecostalist god-botherers.

Chtistians are in no sense a persecuted, marginalised minority denied access the mainstream media. It may be true that the relatively tiny Pentecostalist sub-group of Christians have been treated by the media as beyond the pale, but that’s hardly surprising given all their falling over backwards, speaking in tongues, and raising vast amounts of money to spend on themselves instead of the poor. As David says, hopefully the rest of the Christian churches will eventually speak up and object to the Pentecostalists’ presumption in professing to be the authentic political voice of christians. They’re not.

2022 years ago

Great article Don. I kept nodding yes yes yes. Some quick comments now – I might respond a bit more fully on my blog later.

I agree with Ken that keeping attractive opinions out of the public arena is not just a tactic of progressive elites. I have seen the right wing death beasts to the same. I nevertheless think too that the tactic to keep the conservative point of view out of the media was used in the gay marriage issue except that it backfired on the gay activists.

I also think the idea of right=religiously tolerant and left=religously (or at least Christian) intolerant is a myth in itself – probably created by keeping the opposite point of view out of the public arena.

I’m not too sure about an anti-Christian offensive, or at least some of the examples cited by the commentators do not support it. Tony Jones’ question for example, was a trick question given FF’s close relationship with the AOG and their denial of it until late in the campaign when they finally acknowledged that their founder was an ex-AOG pastor and that they used their existing (AOG) network to recruit and fund raise. In any case, Jones was hardly ridiculing Harris. If Harris was smart, he should have just replied that the election result was no more the hand of God than Jones asking that question.

As an aside: I saw that interview and I am sure that I came across a item on the net which suggests Harris is STILL in a position of influence in the AOG…which means Harris might have also told a porky in that same interview.

As to the secularist left stuck in a spiritually arid world of their own making, frankly I find it more refreshing to hang around the spiritually arid then those who are full of themselves – like fundamentalists who present themselves as the mouthpiece of all Christians. While there are a few of those spritually arid who try to mock religious belief, they still much more fun to talk to IMHO. And I say that as a (theologically) conservative Christian. I At least when it comes to politics they don’t try to hijack my beliefs to fit their political agenda like say, Howard does.

Shanahan may believe that progressive elites are trying to “pick and choose what the church is allowed to talk about”. But it suits Howard – who is a nominal Christian at best, and who is more likely to play the church than any other politician I know – to tell church leaders off when they speak out against the Iraq war or the unfair treatment of asylum seekers and then just days ago, praise Jensen and Pell and co. as very brave souls for speaking out against Labor’s education policies. And this even though the Archbishops’ media release could hardly be read as being against the policy.

Even where I find evidence of anti-Christian sentiments, it doesn’t worry me personally. I expect it. We are taught to expect it. And I think Christians who whinge here forget that even at its worse, it is just isolated pockets of mild annoyance rather than systematic persecution. It is not if we are prevented from living our lives the way we chose to. We have not had our blood shed for our faith. If anything, Christians should be and are very very grateful to live in a country like Australia which affords us so much freedom. Hec, we are even allowed to prosletyze!

Which makes me think. Who are Henderson and Shanahan anyway? Are they Christians? Do they speak on behalf of any group of Christians? If Christians don’t feel the need to defend themselves, why do they feel compelled to do so, or are they too, using us as political tools like Howard does.

*Sigh* To think that we are asked to pray for our leaders. Talk about loving your enemy.

David said: I am always amazed by the way the mainstream Christians tolerate the hijacking of their religion by fundamentalist nutbags.

OK I am one of those theologically conservative Christians who gets variously peeved at the hijacking antics of FPLBs (Fundamentalist and Pentecostalist and Liberal Beasts). And although I do speak out on some issues I am nevertheless not worried about FPLB’s attacking my religion. Firstly because Christianity isn’t really a religion by the standard definition of the term. Secondly it isn’t mine – the head of the church is Jesus Christ and he is uncannily smart in running his affairs and I’ve learnt that you can trust him to know what he’s doing. And thirdly because well, by not doing so as often as people would like us to, it lests the FPLBs show how silly they can sometimes be and just how tolerant the rest of us are! ;-)

2022 years ago

As regards “picking and choosing what the Church is allowed to talk about” you only need to look at the reaction of Henderson and others to church leaders who say things he doesn’t like, for example in opposition to the Iraq war.

As regards Don’s discussion of the Hanson case, step 3 was not a rhetorical strategy – her views were morally repugnant to those who attacked her. There was no real use of step 2 in this case.

This brings us back to step 1. Suppose that there exists a pool of people sympathetic to some morally repugnant views, and that attacking those views on moral grounds will only inflame the attitudes of those people. It’s not clear that an agreement that these issues are out of bounds for discussion is an unreasonable position for politicians who share the position that these views are repugnant but might otherwise be tempted to use them as debating points.

2022 years ago

For people like Hanson, step 2 tends to occur in the popular media by people who possibly think silence from the opinion makers is a green light. Then, when the opinion makers figure they have a captive audience, step in for the kill with step 3, in a sense reinforcing the ridicule but with a moral twist.

Just being silly. Got up too early today.

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
2022 years ago

Correcting myself: On Step 2, I mainly meant to say that no-one much used the line that Hanson was representing an interest group. She was ridiculed for being ignorant (and she was ignorant), though this was a subsidiary theme to moral attacks.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Saint has stolen my thunder and written far better than I the gist of which I wanted to say.

Christians are told we will suffer for our beliefs. In Australia we are indeed fortunate that this descends merely to ridicule etal.

I accept this given the attacks I have taken on blogs concerning christian beliefs. There is no point whinging about this. Accept the attacks as best you can and continue to express your point of view.

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

homer – you should be far more embarrassed about your musical taste than your christianity.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

FXH, I am embarassed by neither.

2022 years ago

Testing? I just wrote a fairly longish comment, then was told when I hit “post” that the site wasn’t even there. I’m off to bed now, but this may tell me whether it was merely a temporary fault [somewhere]