Thursday, November 20, 2014

Abbott and the ABC: a story of second-order hypocrisy

Abbott has recently broken one of his pre-election promises, that is, that funding to the ABC and SBS would not be cut under his government. It was announced on Wednesday that $254 million will be cut from the budget of the ABC and more than $25 million from SBS. Tony Wright, writing in the Age, has pointed out that this makes Abbott a liar. More than this, it makes him a hypocrite, given the ferocity with which he attacked Julia Gillard for breaking her pre-election promise not to introduce a carbon tax.

None of this comes as a great surprise. For me, it’s hard to get worked up about the fact that Abbott has been shown to be a liar. He is a politician after all, and politics has always involved a delicate relationship with the truth. It's no shock to learn that a politician has broken a pre-election promise.

Martin Jay, an American scholar, goes beyond this form of cynical realism about politics to argue that mendacity is actually a virtue in this domain. He suggests that we’re safer with a politician who expediently changes his story from time to time than one who fanatically insists that his perspective is the truth and nothing but the truth, and uses this to justify violence against those who oppose his views. To be human is a virtue in a politician, and to lie is human.

The charge of hypocrisy is more serious, but as George Orwell pointed out, hypocrisy is only possible in a state in which privacy exists – in which we can do one thing in our private lives, and put on a different face in public. Far worse is a state in which hypocrisy has been eliminated because there is no distinction between private and public any more, or no one can ever alter their position. None of us is entirely consistent and nor should we expect this in our politicians.

However, Abbott is not just an ordinary hypocrite; what is disturbing about him is that he is what David Runciman calls a second-order hypocrite, that is a politician who cynically exploits the public’s familiarity with double standards in politics and takes advantage of its na├»ve yearning for someone who can rise above it. Second-order hypocrisy involves cynical manipulations of people's desire for a simple version of the Truth, designed to whip up moralistic condemnation of political opponents. Abbott’s campaign against Gillard was a good example of this. Abbott set himself up as the guardian of a pure, truthful standard of political practice against which Gillard fell short: "My aim is to lead a no surprises, no excuses government that says what it means and does what it says." 

Paradoxically, it may have been because Gillard had a reputation as a genuinely and unusually conscientious politician that this smear campaign was so successful. It made it a bit easier to sustain the fiction that our heartfelt trust was really betrayed by her shift on the carbon tax issue. Maybe it’s because few see Abbott in this light that his failure to abide by his own espoused moral principles doesn’t seem such a big issue. 

The damage that is done by second-order hypocrites in politics, if they are successful, as Abbott undeniably has been, is that they create a climate in which everyone is on the alert for hypocrisy and lying, while other forms of wickedness are left to flourish. The project of denouncing liars and hypocrites engenders anxiety, since the spectacle of what happens to those who are branded by these accusations makes it seem extremely important to establish one’s credentials as one of the pure, the true believers. This is the kind of atmosphere that created the Terror under Robespierre.

This is not to suggest that commitment to truthfulness leads in the direction of Terror. Rather, it is second-order hypocrisy that can put a society on this track. It is hypocrisy of a particularly powerful kind, masquerading as a commitment to Truth. In some cases, those who use such tactics may convince themselves of the purity of their motives and ideological position, but this is dangerous self-deception.

It is dramatic to compare Abbott to Robespierre; the leaders of the Egyptian government that has imprisoned Australia journalist Peter Greste and others might seem more suitable targets for such a comparison. Fortunately, we are still far from confronting this level of ideological control of the press in Australia. 

Nevertheless, Abbott has done damage to the tenor of public debate here, and succeeded in introducing a level of personal attacks, moralizing judgments, and polarized positions that often seems more American than Australian. The decision to cut funding to the ABC is entirely in keeping with this strategy, since the kind of intelligent, substance-based political discussion and satire that is facilitated by public broadcasting (and community radio) is a major obstacle for the success of second-order hypocrisy. 

Let's not succumb to Abbott’s tactics by wasting our time moralizing about his personal duplicity; rather let's focus on safeguarding the institutions, like the ABC, that guarantee a more expansive, truly democratic style of public discussion in this country.

1 comment:

Beth Bell said...

The second-order hypocrite Abbott...that could be front page Telegragh. Come on Murdoch you would only be calling him a 2nd order hypocrite. Thanks Justine..would be fantastic if more journalists wrote like you