We’re all in this together

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Sunday, 1 February 2015 18:30 by 2353
As human beings we each have a responsibility to care for humanity. Expressing concern for others brings inner strength and deep satisfaction. As social animals, human beings need friendship, but friendship doesn’t come from wealth and power, but from showing compassion and concern for others. [Dalai Lama]

It is common to make a resolution on New Year’s Eve that, if kept, will make us better people in the forthcoming year. It is also a period of reflection, of things we did well, things we could have done better and things that we just should consider — so with your indulgence, and as New Year’s Eve was only a few weeks ago, I would propose that we should all reflect on this quote from the Reverend Tim Costello (Baptist Minister, CEO of World Vision and brother of former Australian Treasurer, Peter), and that we should all aspire to it in 2015.

Ultimately we have got to co-operate for our common destiny.

If you’re reading this site you’ll probably remember that back at the beginning of November, the Memorial Service for past Prime Minister Edward Gough Whitlam was celebrated at the Sydney Town Hall. As you would expect, all the living Prime Ministers attended the service — and the public outside did not greet Prime Ministers Howard, Rudd and Abbott with any enthusiasm. Regardless of our opinions of the three gentlemen in question, it is my contention here that the treatment they received outside the Hall was inappropriate for three past and current leaders of our community. True, once inside, Abbott gave the impression he was there only because he ‘had to be there’, when speaker after speaker was pointing out the legacy left by Whitlam, so he was equally at fault.

Oliver Burkeman, writing in the US version of The Guardian opened a recent opinion piece with the headline ‘We can all get along — and for less than the cost of a Taylor Swift Album’. While Taylor Swift may not be your preferred musical choice (she certainly isn’t mine), the article asks why people ‘hate’ those with a different viewpoint. Burkeman looks at a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America that set out to look at the reasons for intractable disputes:

Political conflict between American Democrats and Republicans and ethnoreligious conflict between Israelis and Palestinians seem intractable, despite the availability of reasonable compromise solutions in both cases. This research demonstrates a fundamental cognitive bias driving such conflict intractability: Adversaries attribute their ingroup’s actions to ingroup love more than outgroup hate and attribute their outgroup’s actions to outgroup hate more than ingroup love. This biased attributional pattern increases beliefs and intentions associated with conflict intractability, including unwillingness to negotiate and unwillingness to vote for compromise solutions. In addition, offering financial incentives for accuracy in evaluating one’s outgroup mitigates this biased attributional pattern and its consequences. Understanding this bias and how to alleviate it can contribute to conflict resolution on a global scale.

In other words, can people be convinced to ‘see the values of their enemies’? Well it turns out that the answer is yes; people can gain an understanding that the motives of their ‘enemies’ are usually the same as their own motives but they come from a different viewpoint. Where the Taylor Swift comparison comes in is that when interviewing Americans about their hatred of the Republicans/Democrats (as applicable), it only took $12 — less than the cost of the aforesaid Taylor Swift album — for the interviewee to be able to describe the motivation behind those from the other side. Yes, the potential to gain $12 may demonstrate a number of human failings rather than an opening of awareness but maybe some of the interviewees actually did begin to question their rationale that the other side is completely wrong.

Burkeman links in his analysis to the writings of Arnold Kling who wrote The Library of Economics and Liberty and suggests:

The following thought occurred to me recently. Suppose we look at writing on issues where people tend to hold strong opinions that fit with their ideology.
Such writing can
(a) attempt to open the minds of people on the opposite side as the author
(b) attempt to open minds of people on the same side as the author
(c) attempt to close minds of people on the same side as the author
So, think about it. Wouldn't you classify most op-eds and blog posts as (c)? Isn't that sort of pathetic? Here are some more thoughts:
1. The default is (c). If you are not consciously trying to do (a) or (b), then you will almost surely do (c).

Burkeman then acknowledges:

Indeed, an awful lot of opinionating, in the media and elsewhere, just takes the hate-based motivations of the other side as given. The real purpose of such writing — and I’ve done plenty of it myself — is rarely to change opponents’ minds. That kind of project would surely benefit from accepting the possibility that those opponents think of themselves as decent, loving people. Instead, it’s to rally the existing supporters of one’s cause, reinforcing their perception of the other side as driven by hate.

This line of reasoning could support the motives and operations of various media ‘personalities’ and politicians both here and overseas.

Abbott became prime minister through unfailing negativity. In opposition:

They focused like a laser beam on any action by the Labor government that could be effectively attacked. It was primarily a negative opposition, with the biggest promises being the undoing of Labor’s legislative and infrastructure agenda. Abbott opposed the NBN, the mining tax, the carbon price, poker machine reform and much more.

However, in government, this process has now come back to bite them badly.

It’s almost universally agreed by economists and policy experts that a carbon price, through a tax or trading scheme, is the most effective and efficient method for reducing emissions. Julia Gillard opened herself to attack over the carbon price because of her promise during the election campaign that there would be no carbon tax under her government. The Coalition leapt on this broken promise and attacked the Gillard government relentlessly.

Gillard didn’t sell the ‘carbon tax’ well. One could argue that NBN, Disabilitycare and a number of other policies were sold equally as badly by the ALP under Rudd and Gillard. The continual infighting made known to the public through leaks didn’t help promote a sense of unity and purpose. Abbott’s relentless attacks on those policies now puts him in a position where he can’t offer the ‘effective and efficient’ method to reduce carbon emissions, neither can he offer the ALP’s technically superior NBN, the more cost effective ‘paid parental leave’ or any form of increased assistance for those with a long term disability. Hate politics has gotten in the way of good policy — and you and I (as well as our descendants) will suffer. Abbott now calls for mature debate surrounding increasing the GST — something that he claimed was ‘off the table’ while in opposition. When Clive Palmer is literally laughing at Abbott and even NewsCorp is reporting the request with some sarcasm, Abbott has a problem. Kaye Lee discusses Abbott’s conundrum on The Australian Independent Media Network by pointing out some of the other revenue-leaking measures Abbott has promised not to touch, despite being unfair to large sectors of the community.

In November, Senator David Leyonhjelm who is an independent, wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian headed:

‘Dear Bill Shorten: you're the opposition leader, not me. It's time to drop your soft bipartisanship.’

Rather than oppose for the sake of opposing, or donning a hi-vis vest and walking into some unsuspecting factory with a media circus in the manner of Abbott while he was in opposition, is Shorten playing a longer game here? If he is less ‘absolute’ now, he will be more able to determine the best practical policy outcomes in the future, assuming the opinion polls are correct. A search of The Guardian or Fairfax Media’s websites will show a list of items where Bill Shorten is actively and publically differentiating his party from Abbott. Some of his speeches have been (in the words of Yes Minister) ‘courageous’ — such as his speech at the Christian Lobby’s convention that he is in favour of blended families and same sex marriage.

Professor Selena Bartlett from QUT has developed a ‘brain vitality index’, which she hopes will become as well known as the BMI used as an indicator of physical health. Bartlett claims

“Often we are not aware of what we are saying to ourselves or the impact this has on our brain health,” she said.

“Your brain is a massive computer. If you get up in the morning thinking ‘I'm sad’, or ‘I'm worthless’, it's like entering a search for 'worthless'.

“Your brain then sets about finding the evidence to support these thoughts and so the whole negative feedback loop becomes part of your brain's hardware.

“Our brains hold onto negative thoughts more than positive thoughts and if we maintain and reiterate endless negative self-narratives it causes stress.”

Bartlett’s research puts a scientific and peer reviewed foundation to the writings of Kling and Burkeman discussed above. She also has a free ‘app’ on the Apple and GooglePlay download ‘stores’ should you wish to ‘measure’ your brain vitality.

At the end of the day, Tim Costello is right: we do have to co-operate to survive. No one person or group of people has all the correct answers. So why is it that there are a number of people prepared to tear down not only the opinions of those who haven’t come to the same conclusion, but tear down the person as well? Burkeman, Kling and Bartlett all demonstrate from different perspectives that negativity is a dangerous weapon. Bartlett also demonstrates that negative opinions are harder to ‘modify’ than positive opinions.

It is frequently said that people go ‘into’ politics because they have a genuine desire to improve the lives and outcomes for their community. Those who meet a politician from ‘the other side’ also frequently express that they seem to be nice people who are genuinely interested. Why then did it become acceptable for political parties and their acolytes to engender hatred of ‘the other side’ for political gain?

At the end of the day, no one gets off the earth alive and we need to be able to understand that others may have differing opinions developed through a similar reasoning pattern as our own. Surely as a society we have the ability to disagree with a person’s ideas or motives — but not hate the person.

What do you think?

About 2353

As the first ‘official’ post for the year (not counting our ‘warm-up’ or the announcement of changes for TPS in 2015 during the week), 2353 has asked whether we can in this new year be more understanding of opposing views, whether people can disagree with an idea without attacking the person holding it. It is an aim that all should strive for in 2015, including our politicians. Then we might have some genuine public discourse on ideas for Australia’s future rather than political name calling. We can only live in hope! Come back next week for: 'If you doubt the scientists, what about the actuaries?' by Ken Wolff