Expression of opinion is the essence of a democracy. The famous words of Voltaire bear repetition:
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it".
Hard debate and disputation is an integral part of the true democratic process. Respect and toleration of the opinions sincerely held by others based on reason and principle is another important aspect.
Lenin once said: "I think we must stick the convict's badge on anyone and everyone who tried to undermine Marxism, even if we don't go onto examining his case." This tactic has been cultivated to a fine art by modern socialists in politics, media, academia (and some of the Wets in the Liberal Party have caught the same disease).
The level of debate in public life in Australia has degenerated to abysmal levels. Argument by abuse, overly vigorous assertions, cant phrases, innuendo, name calling, denunciations (attacking the man rather than playing the ball, to use sporting parlance) are extremely common. This serves as a substitute for rational argument and an avoidance of entering into serious debate with an opponent's rationally presented arguments. This type of language and debate has always been associated with extreme elements in the political system. The problem is that today it is part of mainstream politics. The Prime Minister, Premiers, Ministers of the Crown and other public figures hurl abuse and denunciations at their opponents without resorting to rational argument.
Hard criticism and strong arguments, provided they are honest and are supported by and based on reason and principle, are part of rational debate. Slogans, abuse and name calling without reason are not, and this practice must be roundly condemned.
The ABC, the public affairs television and print media (national and metropolitan) which set the agenda of public debate in Australia have miserably failed to focus on the low levels of debate indulged in by public figures of the left. These sections of the media, however, are quick to pounce on the right when it indulges in rhetoric, unfair or extreme comment and even when it is arguing rationally and legitimately. The views of the extreme right are ridiculed or ignored. By comparison the extreme left is given great latitude. The activities of left wing protest groups receive wide publicity. Any criticism receives minimal exposure. The word moderate is used to describe persons of the left and extreme left. John Halfpenny is regarded as a moderate by sections of the media. What is a moderate is of course a matter of opinion but the media attempts to parade its interpretation as objective fact. An objective criteria of moderation in public life should take account of public values. The only possible criteria is that a person who identifies with majority community values should be regarded as a moderate.
The most common approach of the critics of the arguments of the right is to attack the man rather than the idea and to use denunciations without resort to rational argument. The descriptions and associations used by Labor Ministers of the Crown include: racists, fascists, imperialists, conceited Coalition of privilege, troglodytes, neanderthals, drones, thugs, persons who are cold of eye and hard of heart, lunatic fringe academics, failed and frustrated ex-public service mandarins, simple minded avaricious millionaires, mercenaries of the money markets, born again political inquisitors of the National Farmers' Federations, clandestine clubs, flag waving, anthem singing, Queen toasting phonies, economic fantasies, incoherent ravings, the black and sinister hand of this clandestine and subversive force, politically an evil view, men of straw, branch of the Ku Klux Klan, persons with an obsessive desire to maximise profits through tax evasion.
The public policy debate in Australia is dominated by abusive rhetoric. Some socialists have, over the years, perfected the art of suppressing opposing views through tactics involving abuse of opponents and of propagating their own views by vigorous assertion and catchy slogans.
A key strategy is to heap abuse and ridicule on opponents. Those who call for de-regulation and privatisation are called the defenders of privilege, the exploiters of the poor and the divisive elements of society. Those who support national defence and opposition to the global threat of communism are labelled as war mongers and adventurers. Those who call for the reduction of the size and cost of government are portrayed as uncaring persons who are insensitive to the problems of the less fortunate. All critics of socialist policy are generally branded as extremist, the presumption being that the left alone are rational and reasonable. They present all social problems as a conflict between the rich and poor and the caring and the uncaring. They assert that their policies alone serve the poor whilst everyone else is only interested in entrenching the privileges of the rich.
The word racist, accompanied by abuse, is freely applied to those who are not in any sense racist. There are rational arguments against multiculturalism, based on the amount of money which is wasted by bureaucrats, that it ferments inter-communal disharmony, that ethnics are prevented from joining the mainstream of Australian life and enjoying the opportunities for advancement, and other counter-productive effects. The word racist is applied to those who oppose indiscriminate Aboriginal land rights and point to the waste of a great deal of money on certain bureaucratic schemes. Many who oppose land rights would support expenditure on special medical and educational programs for Aboriginal people and for mining royalties (not veto powers over mining) in relation to genuine (as distinct from fictional) land rights claims.
Socialists sell their programs by couching them in slogans. They are touted as promoting justice, equity and the quality of life. They resort to arguments by vigorous assertion, or as Professor Leonie Kramer calls them, "arguments by slogans, labels and cant phrases". By such means they have created an impression that socialist policies have brought about present levels of prosperity in society. When these propositions are challenged the left and their allies react with abuse and meaningless denunciations.
There is strong support for socialist ideas by dominant elements within sections of the media (the print media, TV and ABC radio). It is this support which has enabled socialists to smother their opposition and to proclaim themselves as the guardians of the public interest and the aspirations of mainstream Australia. With the assistance of the media, they have managed to control the agenda of public debate and to intimidate the political opposition into submission. The fear of abuse and smear have made liberal politicians fearful of asserting their own principles and beliefs.
Democracy cannot be said to consist of a definite set of rules and precepts. Even if it is accepted that there are some factors which are relevant to the concept of democracy, observance of these alone is not sufficient. It is possible to observe the letter of democracy and violate its spirit. The most important element in the spirit of democracy is respect for opposing views, and what flows from this — a spirit of give and take in which compromises could be arrived at in an atmosphere of genuinely rational debate. This would include not only respect for opposing views, but a way of arguing which avoids unscrupulous exploitation of half-truths, personality assassination, appeals to base emotionalism, consistency of argument rather than changing arguments and ideas for political expediency, concern for fairness and equity, an ethical perspective and so on. It is often quite possible, indeed easy, to win an argument by foul means. The trend in modern politics towards some individuals getting their own way, winning a majority to their side by intellectual shock tactics and riding roughshod over the truth must be roundly condemned. Strictly speaking, no democratic rules have been broken, except the crucial one of intellectual and moral honesty. And the wholly inadequate justification for such actions is "it is politics" or "the ends justify the means" or "we do not agree with the tactics adopted — but we agree with the ends".
Freedom of expression, accompanied by debate, is one of the cornerstones of democracy. What is needed is a vigorous and open debate about socialism versus liberalism, liberalism versus marxism, private enterprise versus government enterprise, the pros and cons of private enterprise, etc. This debate should be conducted on the basis of an exchange of reasons and without resort to name calling, an impugning of motives or argument by slogans and vigorous assertion.
There are three reasons (operating separately or together) which are responsible for the tactics of argument by abuse, sloganism and character assassination.
1. The tactic may be the consequence of a belief in the inherent superiority of the point of view espoused and the deficiencies in the opposing point of view.
2. It may be adopted as a debating tactic in the context of a supportive media designed to put down opposing views without the necessity to resort to rational argument.
3. As a corollary to (2), this type of argumentation operates to deter individuals and institutions from entering into public debate with those who use these tactics.
Whatever the motivation, it demonstrates a lack of faith in democracy. It demonstrates an undermining of the spirit of democracy which involves a commitment to fairness and decency. It also involves a violation of the basic principle of a democratic society that a decision should be made after free exchange of views in the belief that the better opinion will triumph. Whatever way one looks at it, this totalitarian attitude and mentality is dominant and destructive of democratic processes.
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