Turn Up Your Bullshit Detectors

People may struggle to realise that events that occur on the other side of the world are likely to play a role in how things go down over here. The recent activities of the US government, its shutdown and debt ceiling debacle, were the talk of the town a few weeks ago, even within these very pages.  But what people fail to realise when they passively consume nightly headlines is that they are contributing to the politicisation of ideas and the reduction of critical analysis in current affairs. This often descends into mere party bashing and is the hindrance of many a political system. This is true for both the US and Australia as these acts are often carried out by a media that has embraced the institutionalised misology of the various political parties.  These factors comprise the notion of ideological rigidity. How it relates to the dissemination of ideas by political elites and the media is the central concern of this article.

The stimulus for this piece is a private conversation between United States Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama that was recently made public. Reid recounts the conversation he had with the president just as the government shutdown and debt ceiling negotiations were getting serious in July of this year. Reid recalls, “We just both came to the conclusion that the time had ended to be taken in by these crazy people. The president said, ‘I’m not going to negotiate’. I said, ‘I’m not going to negotiate’. And we didn’t.”

Right here is the problem. Ideological rigidity. This rigidity sees politicians, the media and everyday people anchored to a set of beliefs that they unquestioningly accept because of a tradition of politicising issues, events and ideas. This rigidity has led to elected officials referring to their colleagues as “crazy people” and media outlets repeating this incessant opponent bashing, which could be done away with in a common sense world as people look to compromise and agree on policy. But it has reached the point where media outlets in the US are so strongly aligned with political parties and their agendas that any possibility of objectively reporting the government shutdown was tainted by those affiliations and the associated misology.

However, this works both ways. It is often the case with political ideologies such as conservatism or liberalism that their true meaning is unravelled by misinformation and malpractice. The cases in point here are the economic policies of the Tea Party in the US and the asylum seeker debate in Australia. Misinformation in both countries has enabled dissatisfied supporters of all political ideologies to establish a series of policy attitudes that are untouchable and, therefore, immune from criticism. This is, in general terms, misology. It can be said that these platforms are espoused by those seeking to advance their agenda, all the while escaping any critical analysis of what it is they are proposing.

In the US, this has seen the policy platforms of the Tea Party co-opted by “malpractitioners” such as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas who has superimposed his own socially conservative zeal on these platforms. Cruz has been widely hailed as the instigator of the entire shutdown and it is his misguided efforts, among other politicians, that have served only to reinforce the same irresponsible behaviour that has been allowed to proceed for too long. Cruz, like Obama and Reid, is a good example of how a political ideology can be co-opted to the extent where it is so poorly practiced it becomes barely recognisable and the practitioner dares not stay true to their ideological roots. This has serious ramifications for the public because media outlets, with their political affiliations, are responsible for the dissemination of information, or in this case, misinformation.

In Australia, political ideologies have also been politicised to the point of rigidity and are seen in the divisive political debate concerning asylum seekers. More recently, the debate surrounds the question of what is considered the most politically correct term by which to refer to them. Early last week, the Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, announced that the government would now refer to asylum seekers that attempt to enter Australia without a valid permit as “illegal”. Such a politically loaded term immediately received attention from the left of politics. However, this attention has been at the expense of critically analysing the change in language by stakeholders such as politicians, advocacy groups, the media, or even the wider population. Morrison has been attacked for his use of the term and had to defend its “hard-line” nature because the usual critics, as listed above, have failed to engage the debate. Such a debate is rendered unnecessary or potentially damaging because of the unspoken truths and untouchable policy attitudes that are so entrenched in all political parties, whether it is the Republicans or Democrats in the US or the Liberals and Labor in Australia.

Here are just two examples among the wide variety of issues that are addressed in political systems all around the world. Rigid attitudes obfuscate the plurality of ideas that facilitate democracy in both our countries, all for the sake of political brinksmanship and its supposed gain for both parties and the media alike. In the US, Alexander Hamilton envisaged the potential effect such rigidity may have on a future government when he claimed in The Federalist no. 70 that “a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government”. The theoretical foundations of most political ideologies – conservatism, liberalism, etc. – are all undermined by misinformed and misguided attitudes that have been institutionalised in whichever party structure or media outlet they identify with.

When complex debates over issues like the US debt ceiling and Australia’s interdiction of migrants are reduced to sound bites made by various political ideologues appearing on the nightly news, or being virally disseminated on supposedly witty posts and blogs, people will not understand what is really happening in the world. Plain and simple, they will not understand because they aren’t afforded the access traditionally provided by mainstream media outlets that facilitates such an understanding. I’m not suggesting that I comprehensively understand these complexities, but I’m not the one involving myself in the bickering among ideologues that continually skirts around true debate of the issue. These political ideologues restrict the scope of debate, or the content of debate, because it may not fit within their rigidly constructed political attitudes, where ever on the spectrum that may be.

So I suggest that everyone “have their bullshit detectors turned up high” when they attempt to navigate the plethora of misinformation presented by the numerous vested interest groups that control what we are allowed to consume. Of course, while retaining your ideological independence and allowing common sense to prevail.