Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sunday Essay - the real insignificance of Australia's chattering zone

This morning's Sunday Essay is triggered by offerings from my fellow bloggers.

Over on Club Troppo, Gummo Trotsky's George H W Bush & The Broccoli Wars reminded me of a footnote in recent US politics. It appears that President Bush Snr's dislike of broccoli, a dislike shared by many, actually has a physiological base. However, one commenter managed to put his own very particular slant on the matter:

Supertasting is a pretty good analogy for what researchers like Jonathan Haidt have observed: people with conservative views have a strong sensitivity to fear and disgust, while progressive types don’t.

That’s why, where the Right sees a community of grotesque abominations and a dire threat to western civilisation, the Left just sees gay people and isolated acts of terrorism.

Over at his place, Don Aitkin's How important is this election? seeks to correct the view that this is the most significant election ever and in so doing has a shot at The Conversation. This drew a comment from Peter Kemmis:

For a university-supported site, I think "The Conversation" is quite disappointing. It reflects a narrowness from many contributors and feeds what may in many cases be a narrow readership. There is an opinion piece by Nick Cater in "The Australian" today, where he discusses the media and current politics. He defines the Chatter Zone as comprising 13 Australian electorates, where 9 seats are held by the Coalition, and the balance by Labor and the Greens. Within 5 of these electorates live 2,000 of Australia's 20,000 journalists. In the 19 electorates:

  • 20% vote green (compared to 10% nationally)
  • 2.85% of couples are in same-sex relationships (0.57% nationally)
  • 20% of adults have a degree in arts or the humanities (6% nationally)
  • 33% state 'no religion' (20% nationally)
  • 40% of mixed couples are de facto (10% nationally).

Cater's telling point is: "The prejudices of the Chatter Zone set the agenda on ABC1's Q&A. Planetary warming? Check. Gay marriage? Check. The depravities of the Catholic Church? Check. Turnbull for Liberal leader? Check. It is an inner-city dinner where the only saving grace is the absence of couscous."

As it happens, I'm inclined to agree about the narrowness of The Conversation. It's on my reading list for I find some useful material there, but there does seem to be a perceptual bias among its writers. I would also agree that the inner city electorates that Cater is referring too lie on a particular edge of the Australian social and political spectrum. I, too, have complained about that, about the way that views from those areas are presented as a value norm.

However, it's not quite as clear cut as that. To begin with, journalists living in particular areas focusing on particular slices do tend to absorb the views of those that they write about. For example, and long may this continue, journalists writing on rural issues or living in country areas are far more likely to be interested in National Party or country political or life issues. No one accuses them of bias.

Now take the issues that Mr Cater lists.

It is true that climate change scepticism is greater in country areas, that certain sets of environmental views are most deeply entrenched in the electorates that Mr Cater talks about, However, the position is far more complicated than that. You only have to consider the environmental wars that have raged across New England, wars that have had a direct affect on NSW and national politics, to see that the changing coalitions of interests are far more complex, that the views of inner city Greens are largely peripheral to the New England debate. They just don't matter. Lock the Gates did not spring form Mr Cater's electorates.

Or consider the depravities of the Roman Catholic Church.

It is, I think, true that there are particular negative views about religious faith that are more common in the areas that Mr Cater talks about. But if you look at the real hot spot issues in this area, they are not in the inner city areas but in places like the Lower Hunter, in Armidale, or in regional Victoria. Further, the people they most affect are those who were devout, who trusted their institutions, and they are far removed from the sometimes brittle dinner party or restaurant chatter of a Marrickville or Balmain, to take Sydney examples. Broken Rites is hardly an inner city organisation, at least as I understand it.

Gay marriage and, more broadly gay rights, is a different case. Here, I think, we can say that certain inner city Sydney areas provided something of a haven for changes that spread across Australia. But that had little to do with the then chattering classes, more with the ability of people to organise.

Like Mr Cater, I get annoyed with the way that the chatter zone seems to dominate certain aspects of media coverage. But then, I remind myself that it doesn't actually matter. In the diversity that is Australia, it is the interaction between personal and area concerns that finally sets the agenda.                 


Evan said...

I read some of the pieces on The Conversation for a while but stopped because I was turned off by a tone I would call 'smugness' - sort of 'us right thinking people know that . . . ' - and they are largely pushing an agenda that is close to mine.

This election may be the most depressing for a long while - partly because there is so much convergence around being vicious to the poor and refugees - which means in many ways that it may be the least significant for a very long while.

I do think Nick Cater has a case - and I'm pretty sure I'm exactly the sort of person he would put into the 'chattering classes'. On the gay localisation. This was because the inner cities offered a kind of hospitality and anonymity that was so needed and so rare elsewhere (and sadly in some places is still needed). I do think the inner city has a disproportionate influence on art fashion and that therefore gay people have a disproportionate influence on this too. Katoomba is a rare example of a gay enclave outside an inner urban area.

I think Nick Cater exaggerates his case. It is like the irony of very well paid journalists employed by major corporations complaining about the elites.

Jim Belshaw said...

Smugness is an interesting word, Evan, and probably right. Interesting, however, that you also seemed to have stopped reading because they were pushing an agenda close to yours!

I laughed at your last sentence.

On the accuracy or otherwise of Nick Cater's judgments, and given some of my biases you might expect me to say hear, hear, but the world is more complex than he seems to allow. Despite the inner city influence on certain things (the New England poets used to complain with some justice about the control and influence of the Balmain push), that influence is less than might appear from apparent visibility.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I think this post has a lot of strengths, particularly your comments about the 'Shut the gates' movement and the struggles of committed Catholics, in particular, against corrupt priests ( I use the word broadly).

I must have a closer look at The Conversation. I find two of Evan's comments, in particular, resonate positively with me. Inner cities do offer a kind of hospitality and anonymity that allows all sorts of ideas to develop and that's their strength, but the ideas must be tested in reality, real world experience. Yes there's a great irony in the 'superannuated' nature of the paid commentators complaining about the elites.

I'm amused by the title of the ABC program 'Insiders' and ask my self the question, inside what? Frankly, I'm over the journalistic establishment and tired by having to reality test much of what I read in the Murdoch press.

I think you're right Jim, the world is more complex than it's allowed to be represented across the political spectrum in Australia. I worry about the insularity of my generation, the baby boomers, in particular. It doesn't matter whether they are left right or centre, insularity is pervasive.