Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The ABC of cognitive xenophobia

That the changes at the ABC are typical of the mentality of the authoritarian right goes without saying (see the excellent posts by MrLefty, BrokenLeftLeg and Ninglun on this topic). The more interesting question is: what does this development reveal to us about authoritarian right-wing thinking and in particular, its inability to countenance dissent?

The cognitive linguist George Lakoff, whose focus on the role played by metaphor in social and political reasoning has generated some fascinating insights into the shape of the contemporary political scene in the US (and arguably, by extension, Australia), suggests that we understand conservatism in terms of what he calls "The Strict Father Model."

Life is seen as fundamentally difficult and the world as fundamentally dangerous. Evil is conceptualized as a force in the world, and it is the father's job to support his family and protect it from evils -- both external and internal. External evils include enemies, hardships, and temptations. Internal evils come in the form of uncontrolled desires and are as threatening as external ones. The father embodies the values needed to make one's way in the world and to support a family: he is morally strong, self-disciplined, frugal, temperate, and restrained. He sets an example by holding himself to high standards. He insists on his moral authority, commands obedience, and when he doesn't get it, metes out retribution as fairly and justly as he knows how. It is his job to protect and support his family, and he believes that safety comes out of strength.

In addition to support and protection, the father's primary duty is tell his children what is right and wrong, punish them when they do wrong, and to bring them up to be self-disciplined and self-reliant. Through self-denial, the children can build strength against internal evils. In this way, he teaches his children to be self-disciplined, industrious, polite, trustworthy, and respectful of authority.
For Lakoff, the Strict Father Model helps to explain the many apparent contradictions in conservative thinking. Including, for our purposes, it's selective statism: by which I mean its tendency to favour maximum government intervention in certain domains in spite of its rhetorical commitment to limited government. So how does the ABC fit into this scenario? Perhaps, on the one hand, it constitutes an internal evil, threatening to lead the children astray. On the other hand, perhaps the ABC itself is the disobedient child. Either way: the ABC represents a threat to the Father's values--and more importantly, his authority--and must be silenced. Not reasoned with. Not engaged with in the "marketplace of ideas." (A Strict Father never reasons with a disobedient child, because by doing so he would have to relinquish his authority and meet with the child on its own terms.) Silenced--in this case by stacking the ABC board with the Howard faithful.

Then again, there is something rather infantile, is there not, about the way the authoritarian right responds to dissenting views. If you cast your mind back to my posts on the Queensland schoolgirl who refused to complete an assignment because the task involved contemplating sharing a planetoid with homosexuals, you'll recall a statement from her mother:
She was being challenged, but she should not be challenged like that at her age.
I remarked then that this sentiment represents the fundamentalist mindset in a nutshell. Insofar as members of the authoritarian right are ideological fundamentalists in their own way, the mother's statement is emblematic of their own disposition towards challenging ideas. (I call it "cognitive xenophobia.") And they only have two methods of dealing with ideas and opinions they find challenging: if they have limited control over the source, they cry "SHUT UP!" (in the style of Bill O'Reilly, or perhaps the Internet Squadristi that Bruce has talked about); if they have a greater degree of control over the source, as they do with the ABC, they muzzle it. Both methods, I submit, are infantile.

The mature way of dealing with perceived "bias" at the ABC--the only mature way--would have been to allow the ABC to operate with full editorial independence. If, as a consequence of that independence, the ABC leans to the left in its coverage of certain issues--then so be it. ("Tough," as a conservative would say.) That's not bias; that's independence. There are always going to be domains within a democracy in which those whose political views lean one way outnumber those whose political views lean the other way. As long as such disparities are not the result of artificial constraints--such as, say, discriminatory hiring policies--then the best thing that you can do is to just deal with it. But deal with it maturely--and I mean that in the Kantian sense--by the free exercise of your own reason. (That means that when you encounter an idea that challenges your worldvew, don't just try to silence it: enage with it.)

When you point out to conservatives their hypocrisy in highlighting left-wing bias at the ABC, but ignoring the right-wing bias of the commercial media, they respond with a stock answer: "The commercial media isn't funded by our taxes, and we don't want our taxes paying for left-wing views." Well, they aren't. What your taxes are paying for is an independent ABC--an ABC that is a public broadcaster as opposed to an official state broadcaster: and I can ony repeat that if, as a consequence of that independence, the ABC leans left more than it does right in its approach to certain topics, you just have accept that as part-and-parcel of the ABC's independence. Let me put it this way: part of the price you have to pay, for living in a liberal democracy in which journalists, broadcasters, writers, editors and artists can go about their business without living in fear of government retribution for saying the wrong thing, is that sometimes you will encounter views with which you disagree.

Which brings us back to the authoritarian right. The authoritarian right doesn't want to encounter dissenting views. Its notion of "free speech" is to bury itself in an echo chamber of rightwing chatter so that it never has to be troubled with ideas that challenge its own understanding of the world. Not only is that immature: it demonstrates an antipathy towards liberal democracy and pluralism. Given that these guys are in charge of the country right now, that's troubling.

UPDATE: More at Sarah's, Mikey Capital's, Tim Dunlop's and Barista.