Generalisations about whole nations are meaningless. People, let alone masses of population millions strong, are far more complicated than to be able to be summarised by a handful of perceived common attributes. Yet the genre of national character sketch persists and, in Australia, tends to be particularly cherished by progressive writers using it to argue that their compatriots are stupid, ill-informed racists, more interested in reality TV than politics.
This piece, by comedian and writer Corinne Grant, has been doing the rounds recently, cited approvingly as an accurate snapshot of Australia and Australians. In brief, Grant argues that we are more interested in celebrity gossip than serious politics. The repeated violation of Indonesian territorial waters by the Australian Navy in its attempts to turn back refugee boats is said to get less interest than Cameron Diaz’s views on Brazilian waxing. The conclusion:
The Murdoch media and politicians have told us ‘boat people’ are stealing from us and we’re stupid enough to fall for it. We genuinely believe that a few thousand people are responsible for traffic congestion and hospital queues instead of years and years of government inaction on public transport, roads and health. We accept that we’re ‘at war’ with asylum seekers without questioning the ludicrousness of the statement or the secrecy and abuse it’s used to justify. We hate to think but we love to hate.
Leaving aside the fact that Grant’s piece was published by a commentary website whose lead story today was titled ‘Oh, High Heels, Must We Break Up?’ (pic above), it seems perverse to diagnose the problem as low quality media and then conclude that its sufferers must themselves be stupid.
The uncomfortable reality for media commentators is that most people simply do not have the time to spend informing themselves from several media sources about contemporary politics. Getting up, taking your kids to school, working until 5 or 6 (often later), commuting home, sorting out dinner, and taking a few minutes to relax before heading to bed leaves very little time for the kind of balanced analysis Grant seems to assume is a prerequisite for not deserving to be the target of her opprobrium.
Australia has some of the least diverse media ownership in the world. Two newspaper owners (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp; Fairfax) were responsible for 86% of newspaper circulation in the country in 2011. Online news and commentary have changed this picture somewhat, but it is still the case that legacy media determines the daily political narrative.
More media diversity is part of the solution, and it is great to see, most recently, the emergence of a new quality weekend broadsheet. But progressive thinkers have to try harder to communicate in ways that are not dripping with contempt for those whose opinions they hope to change, and not simply vacate the field, as Labor did, for example, on refugees in the wake of the 2001 Tampa affair, when it all gets too difficult.
Not giving in to the easy pleasure of proclaiming that everybody who disagrees with you ‘loves stayin’ dumb’ is a good place to start.