When did a fact become an opinion and an opinion become a fact? In the last few weeks during engagement with social media, I found opinions masquerading as facts quite frequently. Further, the owners of these factual opinions were often dogmatic, ignorant and uninterested in any real fact that might spoil the fantasy they had constructed around them.
One most recent example I encountered was on Twitter, where a not so nice bloke tried to convince a number of us – including a scientist who studied the changes in the Great Barrier Reef – that there was nothing wrong with the Reef and that we all were deluded in regard to the danger it was in. Apart from thoughtfully informing us that everything we said was bullshit, he posted a ‘paper’ for us to read which he claimed vindicated his point. Anonymous, with no data given and no methodology, let alone any references to studies of the Reef, this paper stridently claimed the ocean was becoming alkaline. The Reef scientists and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s reports were dissed as ‘that is the opinion of one group’. Dismissing us all as deluded lefties, and telling us there was no room for any more ‘warmists’ in Cairns, he only vanished when outnumbered by tweeters concerned with the future of the Reef. I was left pondering why someone could so vehemently argue against a scientist that had studied the Reef for decades and had seen the changes in it firsthand.
And God forbid any female express an opinion or cite a fact on Twitter when a right wing troll is lurking. Only today an Aboriginal woman stated that she had experienced racism in Queensland and Western Australia. She was immediately informed that was impossible. She replied that her lived experience was her own, and he had no right to dismiss it. She was immediately challenged to prove she had ever been in Western Australia, and called a liar and other names I will not repeat here. For someone to deny racism does not exist at all in two of our states must be wishful thinking. To attack an Aboriginal woman who had experienced such racism by denying that her experience was impossible is bizarre. Just what is going on here?
On this last, the final example I offer is a Facebook interaction where a man insisted that Scott Morrison was ‘more knowledgeable’ about asylum seekers than anyone else therefore should never be questioned. I asked how ‘knowledgeable’ equated to ‘always correct’, and suggested that how one used one’s knowledge was just as important. His response – which he made to three women on the thread who expressed a lack of confidence in Minister Morrison - was the same: “I am not going to bother engaging with any lefties on this issue or any issue for that matter”. He was happy to engage with my male spouse, though. Men apparently cannot be ‘lefties’.
Just before Rob Oakeshott (the former Federal Member for the electorate of Lyne) left the political arena to write his book, I interviewed him for an assignment. He made some interesting observations about this type of behaviour.
In Oakeshott’s opinion, Rudd and Abbott became the ‘merchants of doubt’ and turned what should have been genuine debates on issues into a values war. Words that clearly resonated with the ‘frame’ of the more conservative voter, such as ’trust’, ‘truth’, ‘honesty’, were used against the female Prime Minister. For example, statements such as ‘She can’t control the parliament’; ‘She doesn’t have the numbers’; ‘She can’t be trusted’, were assiduously circulated. These statements effectively denied the existence of parliament to make decisions and regulate its own decisions and behaviour, and shifted the blame to Julia Gillard.
His next observation was the unrelenting criticism and negativity from the then Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, whose own vested interest was to destabilise the government and force an election. When he stood in front of signs saying ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ he effectively legitimised an extreme right wing fringe and gave them a voice into the mainstream of politics and media. Was this coincidence or coordinated? Oakeshott believes this was a deliberate strategy to set a certain tone. It signalled it was acceptable to use insulting language and question a woman’s capability in derogatory terms. Oakeshott also pointed to Abbott’s statement that the Government was ‘dying of shame’, a repetition of the ugly expression Alan Jones (an opinionated shock jock) had previously used of Gillard’s father. Oakeshott believes the evidence trail suggested it was a coordinated strategy to set a particular tone that unlocked a lot of ugliness with no better reason than Tony Abbott’s personal gain.
Eighteen months down the track, this ‘lunatic fringe’ appears not only to be far more vocal, but also far more illogical. No longer are ‘facts’ and ‘values’ separate things, but have become inseparable and intertwined. ‘Facts’ are often seen through a lens that is much more about the ‘values’ that people adhere to generally. Issues such as refugees, the environment, Islam and climate change have become rusted onto discrete political positions rather than being debated on their merits. It would seem that Rob Oakeshott was right about a tone being set by political leaders which legitimised anyone with an opinion to claim it as a fact, and which delineated certain issues as having only two positions that were not only designated as either ‘left’ and ‘right’, but also decreed that ‘left’ and ‘right’ would be sworn enemies deaf to the other’s opinion.
In an era when even journalists neglect to check facts before writing a story, how is this disregard for science, information and truth to be dealt with?
Social science has been saying for some time that people will mostly act more on their beliefs, even if presented with a set of irrefutable and provable facts.
And when the leaders that you should be able to trust lie and deceive for their own personal or political purposes, is it any wonder that many find it easier to simply ignore objective facts if they go against their own personal belief system? Or if those facts are not endorsed by someone you trust?
It would seem that facts don't matter that much anymore. But your politics does. Rob Oakeshott’s comments suggest that political allegiance can affect what people believe. When an ALP minority government held power in Australia then conservatives saw it and the female PM as incompetent, chaotic and bad for the economy. Now a conservative government is in power, more progressive ALP and Green types see it and the male PM as incompetent, chaotic and bad for the economy.
I will go out on a limb here and say that the facts about the current party suggest that not only its economic competence is somewhat lacking, but it is generally in disarray. But as a feminist and social scientist, I would say this, wouldn’t I?
Politics really has ruined things for so much — including the truth.