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How the illogical Right hijack debate

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Peta Credlin paying tribute to Alan Jones (image via YouTube)

Conservative political commentators preach simplistic narratives that align with their toxic worldviews, writes Rashad Seedeen.

RECENTLY, THE HERALD SUN conservative columnist, Andrew Bolt, made the barely coherent claim that the outbreak of COVID-19 in Victoria is largely the fault of multiculturalism. Such a baseless claim is typical fodder for a pundit like Bolt.

Here is a sense of his diatribe:

‘Victoria's coronavirus outbreak exposes the stupidity of that multicultural slogan “diversity makes us stronger”… tribalism does tend to make us think more of our own than of other “tribes”. That’s not good in any crisis where Australians must make sacrifices for the safety of all.’

The correlation is absurd, at best.

He and other commentators from the Right have a chequered history in making barely fathomable connections between current events and their pet hates.

In 2011, Miranda Devine made the bizarre assertion that the London riots were the result of a generation of young men raised without fathers, using the opportunity to attack Labor Senator Penny Wong and her partner, Sophie Allouache as parents to a new-born baby. 

In case you were wondering the riot was caused by the police shooting and killing Tottenham-local, Mark Duggan.

More recently, Devine blamed the Australian Greens for the widespread devastation from this summer’s bushfires based on the categorically false notion that the Greens (a minor party) dictate local and state government bushfire policy in reducing backburning efforts.

Devine’s false reporting on this issue has been thoroughly debunked by Independent Australia’s Nick Goldie. This unfounded claim was repeated by numerous other politicians and commentators (paywall) since then.  

One of Sky News’ hosts, Peta Credlin, made the inflammatory accusation that the latest COVID-19 outbreak in Victoria came from the South Sudanese community in an editorial littered with race-baiting rhetoric and fabrications. She later apologised for the claim but a political attack is very similar to a mob hit — you can’t remove the bullet afterwards. 

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The damage had already been done.

Alan Jones, Sky News’ latest addition, recently made the strange claim that Western Civilisation was “under siege” from identity politics and “Marxist crap” in classrooms and university lectures.

Returning to Bolt, rallying against multiculturalism is one of his favourite projects. The COVID-19 pandemic is only his latest bugbear. Bolt’s racist diatribe has a scatter-gun tendency. Previously, Bolt claimed that multiculturalism was ruining Christmas, brought violence to "our streets"  and is a form of "colonisation, turning this country from a home into a hotel".

Bolt’s rants have many targets but common themes include confected outrage and reliance on false information. He reached a new low when he described Greta Thunberg as "deeply disturbed" and with "so many mental disorders".

Thunberg, a globally-recognised teenage climate activist, has been quite open about her Asperger’s syndrome, yet Bolt’s mocking was so egregious that the Australian Press Council deemed that he had breached standards.

Meanwhile, Bolt has been regularly exposed for pushing inaccurate and false science in the denial of climate change.

Commentators from the Right have the natural inclination to violently convulse with indignant anger over certain hot-button topics like race, sexual diversity (notably marriage equality and trans rights), feminism, climate change, movements for change and their absolute belief that somehow all education institutions have been seized by Marxist zealots brainwashing Australia’s next generation.

As a school teacher myself, I can promise you all that it is hard enough to convince students to do homework let alone find time to explain the merits of Das Kapital.   

Truth and informed debate seem to be the first victim in conservative commentary. Bolt denies the existence of the Stolen Generations, despite victims and their families still living with this trauma to this day. In 2011, he was found guilty of violating the Racial Discrimination Act due to his racial vilification of Indigenous public figures. The Court found that Bolt’s articles were 'not written in good faith and contained factual errors’.

Devine and many others, used false data on the lack of back-burning and the Gree’s bushfire policy. Credlin, as well as wrongly demonising an entire immigrant community, has also admitted on Sky News that when she was the chief advisor to then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott they transformed a co-ordinated lie into an electoral campaign in describing then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s 2011 carbon pricing scheme as a "carbon tax" in order to smear it as economically disastrous for working Australians.

But that’s the point. Conservative operatives will filter any current event through their political lenses in order to advocate for their agenda. Facts don’t matter if an event provides fodder to rage against the imagined end of society as they know it.

Berkley professor of cognitive science and linguistics, George Lakoff, has provided important insights into the political messaging of the Right. There are two important points that deserve further attention here: framing and direct causation.

Framing is how language is manipulated in order to perpetuate and engrain a worldview with a set audience. In other words framing allows someone to plant ideas through the selective choice of words that are already loaded with social value. As Lakoff notes

'That is what framing is about. Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas.'

Conservative commentators’ writing would barely pass Year 10 English but their framing is next level. For Bolt, "multiculturalism" is an affront to the cultural sanctity of "Australians", which is really code for white Australia. He uses "multiculturalism" and "tribalism" interchangeably to paint non-white immigrants as uncivilised and even savage.

The same can be said for the regular use of "African gangs" to depict an entire immigrant community as criminally dangerous. LGBTI+ parents cannot provide a well-rounded upbringing meaning they are a threat to "traditional family values" and by extension, society. A "carbon tax" is an extra burden on already economically hard-pressed families.

Conservative columnists absolutely hammer us with these frames and consequently hijack debate.

Their inflammatory articles invariably provoke responses, yet they often set the terms of the debate. Engaging with these arguments necessarily accepts the premises of these conservative frames.

Discourse on issues like multiculturalism inevitably use the same frames as Bolt, unintentionally reinforcing the notion of ethnic divisions within Australian society. 

Rather, we should acknowledge that Australia has always been multicultural. Even before European colonisation, Australia contained approximately 250 Indigenous spoken languages.

By engaging with their terms and arguments we are accepting and legitimising the premises of their warped worldviews. Lakoff would suggest that, along with refuting conservatives, an alternative frame is needed such as celebrating the inherent societal value in multiculturalism. 

The other concept that deserves further attention is direct causation. Lakoff explains that direct causation is the belief that a problem can be dealt with through a direct solution. According to Lakoff ‘direct causation is easy to understand’ and can be articulated in a universal language.

Multiculturalism has ruined our COVID-19 response, so let’s end immigration. Bushfires were caused by the Greens’ ideology, so let’s kick the Greens out of office and backburn like we never backburned before. Fatherless children are destroying society, so let’s bring back the traditional family.

Even though these propositions are devoid of facts their simplicity and offer of a concrete solution have an innate appeal.

Conversely, Lakoff explains that "systemic causation" is the understanding that there are a multiplicity of problems that are interconnected in a complex system of simultaneous exchanges. Therefore, solutions for systemic causation are equally complex and involve a nuanced response that engages with a diversity of societal factors.

As such, systemic causation does not have a universal language. Rather, it can only be understood through learning the complexity of how problems arise and engaging with solutions that combat them.

Lakoff noted that empirical studies show that direct causation is more appealing to conservative-minded people, while systemic causation carries more currency with progressive social groups.

But the real problem lies in the fact that conservatives have a much easier job in explaining their worldview than those that want to provide a more accurate and complex interpretation. Conservative columnists have the added advantage of exploiting age-old powerful frames that shape worldviews and debates.

Most troubling of all, these writers have a well-funded megaphone to preach their views. Bolt, Devine, Credlin and Jones are all on the Murdoch payroll and News Corp has built a global media empire around shameless conservative punditry.

To combat the expansive platforms of these commentators, it will take more than just providing an opposing argument backed with well-researched facts.

Lakoff provides one solution: never accept or adopt the frames used by the conservatives. He further recommends that political messages should be led by appealing to the values of the movement then supported by facts to provide attractive metaphors and narratives.

Think Obama’s simple campaign message of "Hope" or how the marriage equality movement framed the issue around the concept of love.

The Mad Fucking Witches offer another path: direct political action. Their campaign of directly contacting advertisers of 2GB radio about the misogyny of Alan Jones eventually resulted in his firing.

A similar campaign is taking place on Facebook, where workers have taken internal action and advertisers are leaving in droves over CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s tolerance of far-right hate groups on his global platform. He has since made promises for change. 

If we want to see the end of illogical and divisive rants from conservative commentators, we’ll need a combination of re-framing and direct political action. Either way, it’s up to us to make change possible.

Rashad Seedeen is a school teacher and a PhD candidate in International Relations from La Trobe University, Melbourne. He tweets at @rash_seedeen.

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