Some still valiantly persist in calling it a “news” cycle. But the tidal wave of reality is thinning their numbers. Increasingly now it’s just a stock exchange of opinions, peppered with the odd objective fact, drowned in a stew of speculation masquerading as fact. Anyone with a keyboard or smartphone can play the game, and that’s pretty much anyone at all these days. On this exchange, the stock is grossly overvalued, but trading is as fierce as any. Rather a pity really. The casualties include fine people, truth and the common good. But it’s what passes for the exchange of ideas in the soundbyte age. You may as well join in, or your voice will barely be heard at all anyway.
Of course, the brave new media world does have its critics. Occasionally one pops their head above the parapet; more occasionally it doesn’t get either blasted off on the one hand, or left to shrivel in the sun on the other. If they are heard, they might be highlighting the preference for spin over substance, the media game of trapping public figures with doorstop verbal slip-ups, or the popular penchant for attacking people’s characters regardless of their words. All of these have weight. There’s one that’s rarely mentioned, though the latter points to it with a dim light. It deserves consideration, not least because it undergirds a great deal of what gets said, written, tweeted and believed, through broadsheets, tabloids, blogs and social media comments, alike. It is the common assumption that the writer or tweeter knows what lies deep in the psyche of … well anyone at all, really.
If editors and blog owners banned tomorrow the posting of opinions predicated on the poster’s knowledge of the inner thoughts of one or many someones they’ve never met, we’d all be reaching for our hearing aids in the public square. There’d be remarkably little to say, in the vein of current discourse at least. Denied the opportunity to tell us what Gillard, Rudd, Abbott, or their hacks are plotting and thinking in private – because they don’t in fact know, political journalists would be forced to resume the antiquated and prosaic practice of analysing public policy, leaving the outcome of next year’s election to the fortune tellers and astrologers. With uncorroborated conspiracy theories left to gather dust, general discourse could become almost unrecognisably civil. Heck, it might even become possible to conduct intelligent, respectful and thoughtful community debate on matters such as asylum seekers, the nature and definition of marriage, the rights of indigenous Australians, religion in state schools, the sharing of the national wealth, and the future of the planet.
That’s why it’s of more than passing interest. The last thing our community needs right now is a continuation and escalation of the polarisation which has latterly taken hold. Yet as night follows day, polarisation is a certainty when it’s fashionable to portray the unknowable about people as established fact, without evidence. The problem with relying on speculation about the inner motives of other individuals or community sectors is that we wind up with an abundance of anonymous ‘enemies’, whose imagined agendas are so heinous that their voices must be silenced. That state of affairs looks like justice to the ‘good guys’, but anything-but to the judged and unheard, whose frustration merely generates further heat with no light. A national cold shower might be just the ticket for the common weal, followed by a great deal of mature and even-handed listening. Will it happen? I hope so. But the thing is, we’re all psychics now.