Rewoke the Spirit 68: A Partial Defence of Bad Manners

Recently, on the May 5th episode of Q&A, our well-loved political panel talk show, dissensus erupted. As Christopher Pyne’s glistening jowls slapped back and forth against an already antagonistic audience, protesters stepped forth to challenge him, with banner and chant; a barbarian horde of destruction to the glorious Roman empire of civilised discourse that is Q&A. Who was responsible? As well as the University of Sydney’s Education Action Group, Socialist Alternative members, of course! Those nosey, noisy and niggardly bourgeois Marxists. From step one these protesters are on the back foot; their intervention was loud, abrasive and unfair. Add this to general perceptions about Socialist Alternative, outdated idealists to boot, and we can’t help but feel the protesters were in the wrong. As Kevin Rudd, sorry Tony Jones, said, “That is not what democracy is all about.” They were breaking the rules: they silenced Pyne’s responses, spoke out of turn, and some of the questioners engaged in long introductory tirades that made it clear they didn’t really care about what Pyne, or anyone else, had to say. They broke our rules of what a good political discourse should be, and for that they should be condemned.

It is this reaction I want to analyse. Having spoken to a few people (I’ll side step saying “the general opinion” here), it seems that the protesters (I mean both the chanters and questioners) were too aggressive and this made them ineffective. Let’s deal with the issue of being aggressive. For some reason engaging in a slow attrition of the environment, the rights of refugees, or the future of education is not considered aggression, but staging a harmless protest that’s a little disconcerting – that’s aggressive, that’s too far. Of course, wanting to be logical, we can formulate two responses to this: firstly, we assert that the current government’s attitude to refugees, the environment and future students is in fact aggressive. This does little to explain the disjunction in perception. The other is that one is ongoing and constant; it is a slow, steady aggression, always there, and barely noticeable, whereas the protest was sudden, unexpected, and most important of all, singular.

What we’re faced with is a disruption in our perception of how things should be. However, behind this lurks a more ominous question: what determines how things should be? There’s a moment of discomfort watching those who asked questions interrupt and talk back to poor old Pyne (dilapidate Vulture that he is), but this doesn’t exist, at least not for me, whenever Tony Jones needs to make a witty remark, or is trying to squeeze a straight answer out of those elusive politicians. This is perhaps a first clue there’s something off with the gut reaction to May 5th’s episode of Q&A. Frankly, for reasons only relating to his suit and status as host, Tony Jones is given more freedom than the questioners – but there’s no Q&A without the questioners. It’s power disparity. This issue here in Q&A is that what comprises its essence and cornerstone holds an inferior relationship to a variable element. It is much easier (though still difficult) to imagine a Q&A without a host than one without questioners. Yet, because of the centrality of Tony Jones’ Kevin Rudd-esque face (warm and charming as it is), it is he who does the back talk. This is such an accepted fact that the deviation from it is challenging, and Q&A’s twitter scroll was quickly filled with righteous fury at the shit stirring protesters.

This weird analysis of Q&A is obtuse and strange, but it will help shed light on why I think more protest on Q&A is a good thing. All the things annoying about the protesters – their silencing, interruptions and general contempt – in short their sidelining of Pyne – is a response to what seems in our current Democracy an approach to those not worthy of speaking. While the current Government quotes the Commission of Audit and the Kemp-Norton review, coming across like a poorly researched undergrad essay, there appears to be little or no effort to ask or consider the opinions of whom it would affect most: students. This comes amongst the general rhetoric of a by the people for the people line. There’s a power disparity between who governs and the governed despite the fact Democracy implies those should be the same thing. Yet as soon as the people start exercising a voice outside of elections to correct this disparity we return to a discussion about ‘manners’, ignoring the very lack of that in the current political order. The asymmetry reveals much about our de facto referral to whichever talking head occupies a position in government.

Assuming Democracy is for the people, I find the expression of the demos served far better in interruptions in Q&A than in placid questions flung hopelessly around while Tony Jones holds court. The interruptions are necessary because there is always a group who is excluded – the pragmatists are right when they say we cannot represent all the people. It is the moment of protest, the staging of dissensus (the opposite of consensus), and the interruption and aggression to correct past aggressions that will give Democracy its strength. Democracy is about an active polity, not a passive polity, and I think those who interrupted Q&A are reinvigorating politics, ultimate effectiveness of their tactics in convincing others aside. The point is not to be reasonable, the point is to disagree. As soon as we all agree, as soon as we lose our voice and view those who express their politics loudly with contempt, we kill politics, and with it hopes of justice, balance and representation.

N.B. I recommend anyone interested in the concept of Dissensus look into the work of philosopher Jacques Rancière, notably his book called Dissensus.