Deaf to our better angels

American showman and notorious hoaxer P.T. Barnum is popularly (but mistakenly) supposed to have said that “no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people”*. 

Back in the 19th century, Barnum made a huge fortune promoting bizarre and often fraudulent exhibits – the midget Tom Thumb, the Feejee Mermaid (which was really a grotesque stuffed fish) and other real and confected curiosities. As someone who is also supposed to have said “There’s a sucker born every minute”, surely Barnum would have recognised the circus of Australian public life at the end of 2012.

That the taste of Australians also is very hard to underestimate is one thing that’s been overlooked in the rush of angst, anger and self-righteousness by the Luvvie Left following 2Day FM’s hoax call to a London hospital that invaded the privacy of the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge. Sadly, that prank led to tragedy when one of the nurses who were tricked committed suicide.

While the decision to put that fateful call to air was wrong, the 2Day FM presenters simply did what they’re paid for: entertaining and amusing audiences with stunts like “gotcha” calls. Indeed, the latest Neilsen radio ratings, with 2Day FM and its sister stations at the top of the heap, show that there is a ready and thriving market for such antics. Unsurprisingly in the circumstances, 2Day FM’s chief japester is Kyle Sandilands, whose studied arrogance and obnoxiousness has achieved notoriety for himself and high ratings and revenue for his network. Hurting people pays.

When it comes to pointing fingers over the tragic consequences of their hoax call, however, the two naïve and hapless DJs only are scapegoats for the rest of us. They simply gave their listening public what it wants. Barnum’s commercial values may dominate commercial FM radio, but its fondness for stunts such as this only thrives because of our collective desire for titillation and cheap laughs at some stranger’s expense.

Let’s be honest: an unpleasant truth of human nature is that almost everyone secretly delights in the discomfiture of others, just as long as we ourselves aren’t on the receiving end – and anyone who says they don’t is deluding themselves. This urge helps explain the popularity of not only commercial FM gotchas, but voyeuristic reality television like Big Brother, a programme which Barnum surely would approve for its combination of low taste and publicity-seeking suckers.

Enjoying others’ humiliation and embarrassment goes beyond entertainment into our everyday lives. To give just one example, it is present when people let fly in train carriages and other public places with loutish actions and foul language, not caring whether it offends those around them. And it’s very apparent in social media groupthink, especially on Twitter, when baying lynch mobs flay alive those they don’t like or agree with, more often than not while cravenly hiding behind an alias. It’s oh so easy to be vicious, crude or crass when you’re anonymous.

Above all, however, this low bar of public taste blights our current national politics. Instead of a wholesome diet of ideas and ideals, in 2012 our political leaders, parliamentarians, and the media beat up salacious issues like the Alan Jones “Julia Gillard’s father died of shame” controversy, the Peter Slipper sexual harassment scandal and the AWU slush fund affair.  

There’s nothing edifying in a Prime Minister and victim-in-chief setting the tone and revelling in feminist adulation by eviscerating a decent Opposition Leader for being a misogynist no evidence whatsoever, that Opposition Leader retaliating by accusing his tormentor of unlawful conduct, a former PM being carpet-bombed by vicious abuse from his own side, and dubious customers like Slipper,  Craig Thomson and, in Victoria, Frankston MP Geoff Shaw, being supported merely for their tainted votes. But just like P T Barnum, and his Roman ancestors, who fixed the Lions vs Christians matches at the Colosseum, Labor and Liberal strategists know that Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott tearing at each other’s throats appeals to the public’s primal blood lust.

Yet in Australian homes, workplaces and social gatherings, the appalling state of our politics is a barbeque-stopper.  We claim to hate the lack of inspirational leadership and personal attacks substituting for debating ideas and principles, yet it’s easier to shrug resignedly and say that all politicians are like that. In doing so we ignore the sad reality that the “gotcha” tone of political discourse reflects on all of us: in our representative democracy we get the representatives we deserve.  Politicians get away with outrageous behaviour because we let them, and often secretly enjoy it.

A truly civil society is one in which we all try to consider how our words and actions may affect others before, not after, we act. If we ourselves fail to do this we can’t blame those who, like Barnum, only give us what they judge we want. Whether crass radio presenters, egotistical shock jocks, anonymous tweeters and, above all, our elected leaders, they do what they do because we actively or passively encourage them.

Thomas Hobbes famously observed that life is “nasty, brutish and short”. Man  is a nasty and brutish creature, and the better angels of our nature are perpetually struggling, but not always prevailing, against our dark sides. So if we want to condemn the words and actions of those whose behaviour we tacitly condone, and change things for the better, we ignoble savages first need to take a long, hard look into our own hearts.

* The quote is actually H.L. Mencken’s

Terry Barnes is a social policy consultant, freelance writer and former Liberal ministerial adviser

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