ABC’s Q&A is a fascinating insight into the modern social phenomenon of pathos politics. The format of the program is something like this: an audience member tells the panel of prominent lefties, various do-gooders and the odd token conservative a brief history of the most pathetic thing that has happened to them and then expects a response.
“My transsexual great-aunt Mindy was killed in a one-punch attack at the greyhounds during the Christian season of Lent. Her girlfriend was upset that they couldn’t get legally married. She fell against the rails and bits of her skull are still going round and round on the mechanical rabbit. I’ve got a symbolic taupe-coloured plastic-turd-brooch on my lapel (to camera) in case you’re interested. Now your government collects millions of dollars in revenue from gambling. How many laps of the track does poor aunt Mindy’s scalp have to do before something is done?”
Arguing by tragic personal anecdote is the last resort of the fool and/or knave. It betrays a profound ignorance of the suffering of everyday life. Most people, if they live long enough, will have a sad story to tell, even some tragic ones. However, most people are sufficiently insightful not to waste their lives with a thinly disguised attachment to the tragedy, either by becoming an advocate or, more pathetically, a mascot for the cause. There are a few pseudo-altruists who build their empires financially and psychologically, perhaps even win prizes on the suffering of their nearest and dearest. This is a complex thing, but it does have a ‘dancing on the grave’ quality to it that is not too far removed from the original meaning of that expression.
Panelists on Q&A often complain of being ambushed by their interlocutors’ tales of woe and they are quite right to feel that way. As with a mugging, there is nowhere to run from the compulsory humiliation. The likelihood of getting off the Q&A set, reputation intact, is vanishingly slight.
The potency of misery’s ridiculous raconteurs rests with their childlike urgency, their blinkered lack of context and their audacious self-absorption. There’s nothing that can really be decently said about the scalping of Aunt Mindy. Nor of Les Layabout, deadbeat dad, just wanting a few coins for the moving pictures to avoid the ritual humiliation of telling his kids, “Dad’s broke again this weekend, my sweets.”
JD Salinger’s fictional Seymour Glass (Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction) once said of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “if someone had to speak at the anniversary of the event, he should simply have come forward and shaken his fist at his audience and then walked off — that is, if the speaker was an absolutely honest man.”
More’s the pity Salinger will never appear on Q&A. But his notorious reclusiveness notwithstanding, he would have found the format quite odious. An ABC audience that comes for conservative blood would not have understood a symbolic stand against the simulacra of victimhood and preening. He in turn would not have understood why they lean forward in their seats in hope that some privileged buffoon will offend one of the totems of leftist piety.
Recently, outspoken panelists Van Badham and Steve Price clashed over Eddie McGuire & Co.’s thirty seconds of tasteless repartee about drowning journalist Caroline Wilson. This exchange occurred in response to a question from a man in the audience (in the compulsory black turtleneck and jacket) who used the fourth sentence of his question, by then still a “comment”, to tell the panel that his sister was “stabbed to death…by her partner…with a meat cleaver”. This was, as revealed, a question about domestic violence and TV culture. But it was the introduction of the meat cleaver, a particularity no-one could ignore, that reduced the discussion ad absurdum. Any self-disclosure that involves a butcher’s tool tends to do this. But no matter, we have our winner for the night!
Q&A certainly has no room for the more prosaic victim who has suffered years of degrading, enervating, or psychologically paralysing abuse because any thoughtful comment about domestic violence and popular culture would be an unpardonable affront to the appalling biographical revelation, and any politeness, which is owed to all, neuters the responder.
So, with absolutely nowhere to go, farce ensued. Not another word was said about the Cluedo crime scene and for the next two weeks social media and the tabloids were abuzz with the Greek root of “hysterical” (uterus), which is what Price accused Badham of being. After that Van Badham began parading the insults and threats which came her way as proof, though pale by comparison with the meat cleaver, of how gynaecological etymology is destiny.
Badham also mentioned the “national conversation” (of course) she wanted to have (and subsequently did), seemingly oblivious to the reality that the only sensible exchange with Price would have been about how she endures the daily news and her Twitter feed without having a nervous breakdown. For his part, the conversational question would concern just how much of his tongue is left in his mouth, given the constant biting of that unfortunate organ required if a fellow is to avoid any and all humour some people might find offensive.
I think we need some honesty in that “national conversation”. And Q&A is just hysterical enough to start us off. So, let us hope for future panelists and audience members with the courage to say:
“Look, I don’t really care about that issue, Tony, so I might send this one back to the panel, perhaps someone whose public profile demands the biggest public displays of empathy….Tanya, will you take this one?”
“I’ll take that question, Tony, but could I just duck into makeup for some ocular saline to show how personally moved I am by those last two sentences. Just a couple of drops should be fine because I’ll have forgotten about it soon as you call drinks in the green room…is my mike on…oh, did I say I’m sorry for your loss ma’am?”
Meanwhile, we can dream of a guest who takes the fight back to the audience. A few possible responses:
“Aw boo hoo. At least you don’t have cancer.”
“I’ve had worse happen to me and I don’t bleat about it”
“Everyone else seems to get on with it. Why not you?”
“How do you propose we pay for that?”
“You could get a job like everyone else…”
“No, you don’t really pay any tax”
Think any of that is likely? Me neither.
Dr Murray Walters is a Brisbane psychiatrist