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The 1995 Boyer Lectures


By Eva Cox

Lecture 5:
(Broadcast: Tuesday, 6th December 1995, 8.30am (Rpt. 8.00pm) on Radio National.)


Diana Gribble:

Welcome to the 1995 Boyer Lectures series titled A TRULY CIVIL SOCIETY.

I'm Diana Gribble, and as Deputy Chair of the ABC Board, it's my pleasure to introduce you to Eva Cox.

The Boyer Lectures are a rare opportunity in the media for the sustained exploration of ideas by a prominent Australian.

With twenty years experience as an activist, social policy analyst and media commentator, Eva Cox has developed challenging views of how we need to think about our society in order to prepare for the next millenium.

Last Tuesday she put the case that a central and interventionist government is essential for the well-being of civil society. Today's lecture, the second last in the series, is called 'Change, Diversity and Dissent'.

Change, Diversity and Dissent

Eva Cox:

Trust must be the basis of healthy debate in a truly civil society. There is nothing wrong with dissent, debate or conflict when they are based on mutual respect and trust. We are all fallible so no actions or ideas should be left unquestioned. If I ask you to question others, then I cannot exempt myself.

I believe very strongly that we need to value and validate the thoughtful critics of the system and debate them, as we value and debate those who maintain social cohesion. This view was elegantly stated by academic and critic Edward Said in his 1993 BBC Reith lectures.

There is no question in my mind that the intellectual belongs on the same side with the weak and unrepresented... At bottom, the intellectual in my sense of the word, is neither a pacifier nor consensus builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready made cliches, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmation of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwilling, but actively willing to say so in public.

Said notes that critiquing the powerful may feel good, but rarely endears the critic to governments or others in positions of power. So be it!

No group or individual has a monopoly on good sense or ideas, including those we vote in to power. So we need to monitor the people who decide on our behalf. One check on their power is the existence of formal political and legal structures, another is to ensure that outside voices are heard.

I want to promote new ways of moving on, without necessarily knowing where we will end up. And, as part of our way forward, I want to encourage dissent, debate and collective decisions after hearing many views.

So far, I have raised an eclectic mix of political positions because I do not believe that any of the social theories today have found the ultimate answers, or even the questions.

I started from the premise that all is not well in the world, suggesting that part of the problem stems from ignoring the social bonding which defines us. I have advocated the retention of good governments as major players, not just safety nets and regulators, and I've argued for inclusive, not exclusive, communities which operate as egalitarian, voluntary groups.

The continuous thread that runs through these components of civil society is the need for high levels of social capital derived from trusting others, mutuality and reciprocity. Societies rich in social capital recognise our common humanity, accept diversity and reject gross inequalities.

How can we expect people to accept such a grab bag of ideas, when most want some simple rules which guarantee a happy ending?

Does my image of the truly civil society sound over the top? Too Utopian? There is a word in Italian, magari!, which has no real English equivalent. Magari, with a shrug of the shoulder, means a sceptical if only! Another childhood word memory is Meshuggeh! a cheerful Yiddish word for a form of lunacy; or maybe nebbisch which means a poor fool... These words express some of the doubts I felt as I put these ideas together.

I gain my energy from believing we can make a difference. We need to have a sense of the impossible being possible, or we make no moves. As Oscar Wilde said and I quote:

"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias."

Wilde wrote this just over 100 years ago. Progress is now often a dirty word, because it can symbolise lost environments or values, or just a fear that moving on can be worse than the present.

But I like the idea of a map, a metaphor of a journey, moving on in search of something better. I am suggesting that travelling well may be as much as we can expect. Too often, implementing some man's utopian dreams has created a mess in the present. So unjust means should never be justified by some distant ends.

Means are as important, or more important, than the evanescent end. There is no justification for reducing social capital now. Destroying the present in pursuit of an uncertain future is not the way to go.

There will always be those who want to find a nostrum to provide easy answers to hard questions, a philosopher's stone to turn all to gold. We have all seen a variety of political systems, from markets to Marx and back to markets, based on theories which purport to explain everything.

There are few if any easy answers to where society is going. So maybe we need to take small steps rather than great leaps.

One problem most theories share, is that they define as political only those areas of life and state seen as important by mainly male leaders. I want to see the view points expanded to develop theories which include the social. The omission of the social weakens the ability of any theory to predict what may happen.

As a feminist, I realise that just adding women to men is no solution. There are many feminist inputs which will not be welcome because they challenge existing power and priorities. Feminist views will be opposed by those blocs who control financial capital, knowledge, politics, nationality, race, geography and a multitude of other power bases. This raises the issue of power, who has it and who uses it.

Therefore our ability to analyse and theorise will always be partial and incomplete, even without assuming that as humans we could ever know everything and that knowledge is perfectible. Whatever frameworks we use, we can assume that decisions will be flawed. We should always assume that there are others who can contribute to the debate because no one should monopolise the power to decide.

I have become ever more firmly entrenched in my belief that we need to continue to debate, discuss, and disagree on where we are going. It is only through this change process, that we can remedy the obvious problems we face. We can and should deal with the immediate problems we can identify, rather than wait till we find the grand solution.

I am both a believer and a sceptic. In the 1950s, at university, I claimed to be an anarchist and a socialist which annoyed another student. He said I couldn't possibly be both because the ideas were contradictory. I wondered then why theories had to be consistent and total. Forty years later, I still want a government to make society more equal, and I still distrust its good offices. This seems perfectly reasonable for any healthy sceptic, and this is what I remain.

I question authority as an intrinsic political strategy. This approach probably came from my father, Richard Hauser, who taught me to question everything - everything but him of course. From my father, I also learned that rights come attached to responsibilities and that I was supposed to save the world, on a daily basis. He challenged the way people thought, but eventually people stopped listening because there was no way to move on.

My father's experience taught me that no one loves a perpetual critic, and so I am trying to learn when to stop and how to move on. So raising the issue of debate and dissent is a somewhat personal exploration as well as a political intervention.

The issue of dissent and conflict is not new to the Boyer lectures. Bob Hawke spoke of the resolution of conflict and the development of consensus. He proposed an alternative model based on consensus to overcome unnecessary divisions. Unlike most Boyer lecturers, Hawke had the opportunity to practice what he preached and for some years we had the vision splendid of a Government using the consensus model.

The results were not impressive. A succession of summits, the Accords with the unions and good contacts with business connections made agreements possible between main players who apparently shared similar values. The loop closed so those who were part of the power structures tended to be 'good blokes' who essentially agreed with each other.

There was no space or legitimacy for dissenting views. Instead, there were cosy relationships between groups who should have argued with each other. The model spread and so did the damage. The impossibility of dissent within other Labor governments led to WA Inc and crises in South Australian and Victorian governments. How else can one explain some very silly decisions? There was no legitimacy in the mid eighties for lobby groups or even backbenchers to raise difficult questions.

The problem with the Hawke model is the naive assumption that consensus is possible. If consensus is defined as finding a single solution, the one possible answer, it cannot work.

In a quite different setting, some feminist groups of the seventies, along with other radical movements, also made commitments to consensus. This became the model for collectives running various women's services, and lobbying for change.

In both the Government and radical collectives there was a genuine belief that the avoidance of conflict was possible; that differences arose essentially from poor communication and a win win outcome was possible. By providing a space in which the differences could be explored and common ground sought, the various groups assumed that all would agree. Consensus was seen as better than voting because participants would own what they had agreed to, and therefore decisions would actually be implemented.

This model sounds admirable, and, in principle, is hard to criticise. Finding agreement, taking people with you, empowering everyone, giving them a part in decisions, seems like good process to follow. Whether in the Cabinet Room or in the local Rape Crisis collective, the process should, in theory, elicit the best outcome.

What a pity that the basic idea of consensus is flawed and the practice is so very different from the theory.

First, the collective model ignores some of the basic differences between interest groups and individuals, and therefore the need to seek compromise and negotiated outcomes, sometimes by taking a vote.

Second, the model fails to allow for group process and power differences. These differences operate to silence the debate on which good decision making is based. Collective and Cabinet members find themselves equally regarded as spoilers if they continue to raise objections and do not go with the strength.

Third, decisions are mostly based on time lines and pressures which obviate the possibilities of talking through ideas and allowing space for more discussion. Aboriginal groups, who do not accept the concept of either voting or delegation have a slow process of deciding, and this conflicts with 'white man's' time frames.

Group processes may operate to stifle debate, to pressure people into conformity with the powerful, and to exclude those who insist on bucking a process designed to achieve agreement.

The very discussion needed to ensure that issues are fully explored may often be replaced by processes of interpersonal stroking or bullying. These tactics soon silence or exclude dissenting voices.

There are many examples of closed groups whose survival depends on the maintenance of power structures, and who lack the capacity therefore to deal with change. These groups either stifle debate or ensure that there will always be a numbers bloodbath as people try and line up the votes.

Most closed groups use distrust to maintain control and so reduce social capital. Where there is a comfortable level of trust, the possibility of different views, and of dissent and debate, can be comfortably accommodated. We need to encourage dissent so that people can see that there are no fixed ideas, or conventional wisdom. This does not mean that every decision has to be slow.

Any decision making process must create a culture of responsible discussion. When there are new initiatives, or somebody tentatively tries to move ideas on, there must be a recognition that the innovators need support. Not just blind support, but the recognition that the new, like the old, needs to be debated and assessed, and should never be overlooked or rejected without a hearing.

Informal networks which often decide even before meetings what should be supported should be either recognised and expanded to include others, or subjected to processes which reduce their influence. Where there can be no dissenting voices, there are potentially serious problems. No organisation, community or society is above reproach and no institution can ever put itself above criticism.

This is not new problem. In 1792, William Godwin, a British philosopher, observed that as soon as a group institutionalises, it ossifies. 19th century liberals questioned those with power, and claimed the freedom to criticise. Now in the late 20th century, the popular success of neo liberal attacks on the state are being being used to undermine the state, not encourage debate. Some of the pressure for privatising has gained legitimacy because the power of the state was not open to change and criticism.

Communism failed, in part, because the suppression of dissent under Stalin, allowed him to establish regimes of corrupting power and unquestioned terror. Many political movements of both left and right tendencies are flawed by the rapid ossification of their utopias and the imposition of authoritarian means to achieve them.

Political parties in government tend to make similar demands on the loyalty of members, backbenchers and ministers. The cabinet and party system means that, in Australia, there is little opportunity for independent views in parliament. No one crosses the floor, so it is not surprising that members of parliament have little power in debate or decision making. When independents or people from minor parties are elected, they tend to be treated with unwarranted scorn by the major parties.

We need to build in modes of dissent and criticism. Turnover of power and the questionability of authority seem to me to be inherent in any form of good government. If we do not know the answers, we must set up a process by which we can question, and question again, the decisions that are being taken.

I suggest we see ourselves as part of a Utopian road movie rather than arriving at the city of Oz. Change is constant and relative. Therefore the processes we follow must develop reciprocity, recognising and using our differences may be all we can achieve. And it may be more than enough to create a truly civil society, a better present and near future.

Our processes of change must incorporate the elements of trust, fairness and justice. If we cannot predict our futures with any certainty, we can at least identify the values we want and build them into the process.

I often use the fairy tale of the emperor's new clothes as a metaphor for the silencing of the masses. There are scores of unclad emperors hidden in the consensus bushes, where no one questions their nakedness. This contrasts with the story of the Roman Generals in their triumphal parades who had slaves whispering in their ears the message that they were only human.

One problem with dissent is that people see it as conflict which they associate with wars, violence and assaults. The slide from disagreement to physical strife is very much a product of macho-masculine culture. A shift from the concept of solving differences by physical means will allow us to incorporate dissent as productive rather than destructive.

There are those in the community who abuse free speech and deliberately use it to create fear, loathing and scapegoats. I have some serious concerns about absolute freedom of speech when it ignores the effects on others. Responsibility goes with rights. Incitement to hatred, the vilification of a group for its attributes and the scapegoating of an outgroup can create problems.

The problems of free speech lead back to the issue of social capital and the levels of trust and cohesion. In a society where there is an open acceptance of difference and dissent, and a high level of trust and good will, a few extremists are not a problem. They will, in fact, be ignored as they are outside what is seen as acceptable.

However, when there is a loss of social capital, a sense of fear and loathing just below the surface, then racism or other forms of group hate become a problem. So there may be a need for short term measures to protect the target group.

The next response must be to look at why there is a distributed hate level and what is causing fears and anxiety. Often distrust springs from a legitimate sense of injustice, fanned into an unacceptable form. The mass experiences of the depression between the world wars demonstrated the problems and was one of the reasons for setting up the welfare state. Fascism flamed in areas where there was a deep sense of injustice, so this is a lesson we need to remember and fix the problems not the symptoms.

There is a censorship debate in feminist circles. I am against banning pornography as there is an infinity of problems in defining it, or even in agreeing on its effects. If pornography can exacerbate hate against women, then we should treat it as a symptom of a wider problem which is not solved by censorship. The interests of the judiciary are not feminist so I am very wary of giving them any legal power over what we see.

What about the phenomena of political correctness which often haunts debates on free speech and dissent? Think about who accuses us of political correctness. It is never applied to the boring myriads of powerful people who promote their own biases and stupid views. Is the term economic correctness ever applied to the lemming-like burblings of our many finance writers who never question their frameworks?

Political correctness is a term used by those in power to criticise those who question their power. For instance, I resent the term 'man' and 'he' being applied because I feel excluded. So I object sometimes. So do those whose disabilities are presumed to handicap them, and those whose colour, appearance or other characteristics have made them feel outsiders or invisible. We should have a right to protest our exclusion.

Anglo men have a very short fuse on their own behalf if they see they are being laughed at, or not given the respect they feel they deserve. Try telling an anti male sexist joke and see if the men laugh! Their protests are never labelled politically correct.

We need to look at language in the context of mutual respect and good manners. Respect includes respect for other's views even if you do not agree with them. Good manners do not exclude disagreement or debate. They do suggest, however, that the right to hold different views needs to be acknowledged. Only then can there be proper debate or discussion.

In this context, I have had some concern about the media feeding frenzy over two women writers in the last few months.

Helen Garner made many more book sales from being depicted in the media as the victim of a feminist conspiracy. She became the darling of anti feminists. Helen Darville collected a torrent of abuse which also sold books. However, unlike Garner, she was not seen as a heroine by anyone, because her book suggested we were capable of mixing good and evil. Demonising the Other allows us to be 'innocent', and therefore we take no responsibility for what others do, or even what we do ourselves.

We therefore need to think very carefully about the way we establish the parameters of good and evil, right and wrong. Part of this process must be to allow our judgements to be questioned, our decisions to be reviewed and our views to be challenged. We must accept that our conscience is individual, and each one of us must live with what we have done or condoned.

This can be hard to do. There is comfort in like minded beings, in sameness, in familiarity. We often choose to be surrounded by those who think like us and agree with us, and in our personal lives we should have those choices. However, if we are talking about institutions which deliver services, run the country or produce, we may need to make deliberate and conscious efforts to ensure that we are not cocooning ourselves into the familiar.

The need for diversity is one of the prime positive reasons for Equal Opportunity strategies, which provide a mix of incumbents in more senior positions. We know that cloning oneself can be very comforting, as is indicated by the constant selection of like minds and bodies for company boards.

Dissent has sometimes been painful for me because women often claim consensus as a desirable part of the feminine. Being a peacemaker, a conflict avoider and binder-of-wounds sits with the image of a 'good woman', while the stirrer-debater-dissenter fits a more masculine image.

I want to suggest that we need to reframe these limited images of feminine and masculine to move away from the constraints they impose. If we don't see conflict as bad, full of war and violence, then we can construct the means of exploring differences and debating them.

The agora, the public place where we collectively decide the next step, provides the model of how we run a truly civil society. This public place joins us as much in debate as in agreement. It should buzz with many voices, arguing the merits of their cases and respecting divergent views. This creates change.

Next week, some road rules for the utopian highway!

© Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1995