Q&A: Deep questions, inch-thick answers and the public square we need

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Does anyone else find Q&A's format frustrating because questions aren't given sufficient debating time and if they were, would we be willing to listen to those with opposing views, asks Sue Stevenson.

A FUGUE has begun overtaking me on Tuesday mornings once more. It’s like a massive headache, except it’s comprised of congealed frustration rather than scotch. It was blessedly gone over the Christmas break but now it’s returned in full force. It is the #qanda hangover.

Tony Jones said it himself on Monday night. Something along the lines of, “Well, we covered that question. Not very deeply, but at least we covered it.”

But we could say that about every question on Q&A, couldn’t we? They try to shove as many questions in there as possible. It results in this low-level anxiety that hovers all the way through the show, a concern about the schedule, a need to keep to the agenda and not go too far off track. And then as soon as we start getting into something juicy, it’s too bad because we have to go onto the next topic.

Q&A really needs to consider either (a) having less questions or (b) extending its format out to an hour and a half. Whichever way, it would be less stressful and less frustrating than the deal we’ve got going now.

I’m not even thinking here about the episodes that feature more than one or two politicians. Those, I’ve begun avoiding altogether because I’m afraid I’ll get the pulmonary embolism on Tuesday instead of the hangover.

The inch-thick answers on Q&A are a reflection of the odd way we live. We’re too busy to go thicker than an inch. There’s always the next blip or buzzing device that feels too urgent to just stop here and pay attention to one thing for longer than two minutes.

The format of the show accommodates our anxieties with its self-imposed busy agenda and the tweeting makes it even more so if you succumb. It’s reflective of the broader state we find ourselves in, in an era where we are watching our institutions, our society, our environment all in a state of semi-collapse, and we’re so weighed down by the lack of answers that we struggle to believe that there’s any phoenix that’ll rise from all of these ashes.

We are the kinds of people who are like those hot-water frogs — we’ve been born into this, all these changes that have happened surely but stealthily through our lives, while the money and the jobs disappear and our desire for his ‘n hers walk-in-robes increases and the sense of community that we don’t even realise we’re starving for has largely died.

So quickly it all happened, too. It’s easy for us to not realise how stressed we are, how anxious, because we’re right in that hot frog water. But our stresses and anxieties and half-digested information bytes are reflected in the ways we categorise other people, slap labels on so hard that they’re impossible to get off.

Mark Steyn is a conservative commentator who I’ve got a fair bit of time for. Yes, he smeared Julia Gillard once. His climate science denial baffles me. He is unfortunately as imperfect in his behaviour and viewpoints as anyone else I’ve ever come across who happens to exist beyond my own skin. I do not share his political position. Still, there are moments of commonality with almost anyone, if we can lower our egos enough to look for them.

He was talking on Monday evening about the problems we have if free speech is curtailed — and at the risk of being called a left-wing traitor, I have a feeling that I would have been willing to accept and even agree with some of them. That’s, if he had been allowed to expand upon his ideas.

Because of course what happens as soon as someone mentions free speech is that we all hurtle straight into condemning that person as an obvious parasitical vat full of racism and misogyny. Not worth our time to listen to. Another Andrew Bolt. Because that’s the quality of the conversations and the estimation of each other we tend to have these days.

I don’t know if what Mark Steyn was trying to define was something about the nature of humans and the nature of our public discourse. But it’s what discomfits me every time this free speech debate comes up. Because the hovering fear that you’re going to be shut down is the very opposite of the atmosphere our public debating squares need to be in order for us to feel safe. In order for people to feel safe they must feel like they will be heard without being demonised and categorised at the first hurdle.

To know that within the space you speak, that there is space for nuance, for grey. For paradox and even for contradiction. For respect. Even if you’re a bit of a paranoid dick who wants the world to be composed of people exactly like you.

I don’t know if Tolstoy was right about the whole all happy families are alike thing, but in this instance I would accept his claim. People who feel safe, who feel accepted, are open people. Accommodating. They are the same kinds of people who, if they grow up in a nastier household, with violence and incomprehensible, unexplained rules, become defensive. Defensive people are often nasty, over-reactive and angry. I know, because I am one. They feel very small, and they often feel powerless to change things that they are desperate to change. They often do not know how to defend themselves in ways that are graceful and accommodating.

I think that generally – oligarchs and sociopaths excepted – we all feel like we are good people on the inside, that we could be that sort of happy family person if only we had the right environment. That all the fizz and fury that makes up our world of crazy change is making everyone crazy, unsafe, everyone else into people that hurt us. If we could only have the kind of environment where that didn’t happen, we could start unwinding. But there doesn’t seem to be any time for that.

I don’t know how close I am to the truth of what Mark Steyn was trying to say. I have a feeling though that maybe this concern about the nature of our public discourse is what at least some conservatives are trying to get at it comes to the issue of free speech.

That we need to develop the kind of space where people can relax into themselves, can go beyond that hard shell of defensiveness that is the uniform of the self-righteous 21st century offense-taker. So that we can enter into a broader space, a far more uncomfortable space, that goes beyond demonisation and beyond our tribe. But instead, what seems to happen an awful lot is that anyone talking about free speech is automatically labelled — especially when it’s a white arsehole privileged prick. He must be talking about the freedom to vilify, to hate blacks, chicks, queers, trans, anybody but his own privileged white honky self. Right?

The most frustrating thing of all about our inch-think public discussion of free speech is that maybe those of us on the left, who are enraged by people who behave like dicks towards other people who don’t happen to be them, are wanting the same thing that many on the right are wanting. Surely most of us want a safe public space in which we can all be heard. Even if we happen to be privileged white male honkies. Because we’re all stuck in the space we find ourselves in, where suddenly the level of injustice is everywhere we look.

But people don’t automatically change overnight. And they sure don’t change when they’re flamed on Twitter. Sure, we might automatically conclude that those selfish, individualised bastards on the right aren’t interested in everyone being heard. But that would be presuming everyone on the right is Alan Jones.

The problem with that is that if we want to be heard, we must be willing to listen to those who we are so very quick to demonise as turds. As far as I can see, that’s a shitty trait common to most Australians that extends right across the political spectrum, from the very left all the way across to the very right. And it’s the very first thing we need to learn to lay down if we are going to get anywhere.

But I’m not convinced we are willing to do it. We are all scared people teetering on a large round ball that’s sitting in the middle of space. Our offence cloaks our defensiveness. Our anger makes us feel powerful, if only for a minute. Problem is, our offence is about as effective, and has about the same level of cold comfort, as pissing your bed on a cold winter’s night.

You can follow Sue Stevenson’s blog here.

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