A number of people who couldn't attend the speech I gave last night in Canberra on '10 lessons from 5 years of political blogging' have been kind enough to ask me whether they could see it in published form. The talk wasn't entirely scripted, so I don't have a finished text yet, but I will make it available in some form soon.

To give you a taste of what I talked about, here are two related 'lessons', taken in edited form from my notes. The talk ranged over a number of topics, including of course blogging, and also media. But I also had some observations about the way political debate happens in Australia:

A THIRD THING I'VE LEARNED: People regard their political opinions as a part of their personal identity.

One of the reasons blogging appealed so much to small-l liberals in the early days is that it spoke to their sense of optimism about human nature. Many of these people saw the mainstream media as corrupt and dreadfully compromised, both morally and commercially, and they saw the online space as something pure and free, a space in which debate could go on untrammelled, and thus the best ideas would emerge.

This is an echo of a very old idea that became popular during the Enlightenment, that if you could end privilege and hierarchy and instead promote merit — let a thousand flowers bloom and let the best idea win – then this would advance the greater good. By this reckoning, argument is at the core of democracy. In fact that's almost literally true; in this city we've built a palace devoted to argument, just as every democracy does.

But there are problems with this view of debate and democracy, the major one being that it takes an altogether too rational view of human nature and neglects our passions and our biases. For one thing, people find it difficult to separate their identities from their opinions. I’ll quote here from an article from the science journal Nature. The subject is climate change and public opinion:

…social science suggests that citizens are culturally polarized because they are, in fact, too rational — at filtering out information that would drive a wedge between themselves and their peers.

For members of the public, being right or wrong about climate-change science will have no impact. Nothing they do as individual consumers or as individual voters will meaningfully affect the risks posed by climate change. Yet the impact of taking a position that conflicts with their cultural group could be disastrous.

Take a barber in a rural town in South Carolina. Is it a good idea for him to implore his customers to sign a petition urging Congress to take action on climate change? No. If he does, he will find himself out of a job, just as his former congressman, Bob Inglis, did when he himself proposed such action.

Positions on climate change have come to signify the kind of person one is. People whose beliefs are at odds with those of the people with whom they share their basic cultural commitments risk being labelled as weird and obnoxious in the eyes of those on whom they depend for social and financial support.

So, if the cost of having a view of climate change that does not conform with the scientific consensus is zero, and the cost of having a view that is at odds with members of one’s cultural community can be high, what is a rational person to do? In that situation, it is perfectly sensible for individuals to be guided by modes of reasoning that connect their beliefs to ones that predominate in their group.

My experience over the last five years is that the Australian political class is just as vulnerable to this kind of cognitive bias as the general public. Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. Blogger Andrew Sullivan was recently involved in a fierce online debate with his friend Niall Ferguson, and wrote on his blog when the argument was at its peak:

A word here about friendship and public debate. Many of my peers regard me as unfriendly because I often criticize their arguments with as much aplomb and effect as I can. But I really do not see public debate between public actors as being in the realm of friendship...Friendship, for me, has never rested on a shared ideology or politics...I grew up in a family that never stopped arguing, and no one took it personally when it was about a subject like politics or even religion.

I take the Westminster view that you can verbally lacerate an opponent in the House of Commons and still have a few beers with him afterward. I mean absolutely no personal animus...My friendship with Niall is, from my point of view, unshakable...But I have a duty to write when I think he's wrong and why - and it would have been impossible for me to have ignored a cover-story in my own magazine that roiled up the blogosphere.

I would make three observations about this passage:

  1. I sympathise with Sullivan's sentiment, both as an editor and a human being. As editor, you want sparks to fly between your writers. But as a human being, you don’t want to bear the personal consequences of that. You don’t want people to fall out and develop grudges and hatreds.
  2. This attitude is incredibly rare, in my experience. Few people can strike Sullivan’s pose convincingly, let alone actually adopt it as a personal creed. And yet this is the stance which the liberal ideal of political debate demands.
  3. Although Sullivan’s attitude is rare anywhere, I suspect it is particularly so in Australia. We have a reputation for being honest and upfront, but I find the members of the Australian political class to be acutely sensitive to slights, and we tend to steer far away from any suggestion of offence. If that sounds unfair, then consider my perspective: I'm a Dutch immigrant. Most of you in the room would know a Dutch person, or you may be one yourself. I think it's fair to say that their reputation is of being blunt to the point of rudeness. As someone who was raised in a Dutch family, Sullivan's attitude does not strike me as particularly extraordinary or even unusually admirable.

The conclusion all of this leads me to is lesson no.4:

A FOURTH THING I'VE LEARNED: Almost nobody enters a political debate with any intention of changing their mind.

At best, what people want to do when entering a debate is to change someone else's mind. Although, it is surprising how seldom people even intend to do that – my sense is that, on many occasions, entering a debate is a way of signaling to one’s peers, so that you can inform them that you are part of a certain group.