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January 11, 2020

MIKE O’CONNOR 7/1/20, Courier Mail, ‘Hate for hate’s sake is embarrassing us all’

Personally, I agree with some of what O’Connor writes. His final paragraph contains observations worth dwelling upon: that hatred consumes those who feel and express it. I agree that people seem emboldened these days to type into the ether what they might never say in person.

An analogy for calumny (the sin of spreading lies about others) from my school days: take a feather-filled pillow up on a high peak and empty it into a strong wind. How hard will it be to recapture every single feather? Just so it is impossible to retract the effect of what we say publicly. In these days of social media, the analogy is even more pertinent.

But – and this is the point of the rest of this piece – I read most of the article with dismay. Here is why:

DECONSTRUCTION

The HEADLINE: Obscure. Is it suggesting that some forms of hate are OK? Or that ‘hate for hate’s sake’ is a low-grade, less reprehensible attitude because it is only ‘embarrassing? Try deleting words 2, 3 & 4 and see what difference it makes.

The GRAPHIC: image of fire burning at the base of a blackened gumtree with blackened, smoky bush scene behind. It is a low impact scene. Compared to many of the posts I have seen this fire season, it is bland. The low impact quality of the photo supports the main thrust of the opinion piece.

CONTENT

  1. ‘The vitriol and abuse’ – Nowhere does O’Connor make a specific reference to illuminate what he means by this. I don’t do Twitter and most have been fairly reasonable on the Facebook posts I have read. (For that I am grateful.) I imagine there is a spectrum in the commentary. What O’Connor has done here is, firstly, include all readers by not actually calling out any specific action because we can all apply our own definitions of ‘vitriol and abuse’ and, secondly, include all manner of dissent/criticism in the scope of the article.

For instance, which of these does O’Connor mean to refer to in this article:

–  the television captures of the two folk abusing Morrison in Cobargo?

– the anger of the fire captain of Nelligen having ‘lost’ 7 houses in the town?

– opinion pieces on television, in papers and on blogs/ articles/ cartoons/ online posts which express a range of emotions from frustration to fury at the stance of the Coalition on climate change?

– expressions of dismay from senior NSW Liberal people at the handling of ADF involvement in evacuations and other forms of support?

The lack of specificity is an issue which underlies much of the article, encouraging the reader to accept that O’Connor is taking aim at all manner of criticism of Morrison, or at least to fill in the gaps with their own, personal targets.

  1. Rhetorical red flags: the following are time honoured, highly effective expressions designed to persuade: ‘Any intelligent person’, ‘ It is obvious’, ‘It is obvious for anyone with eyes to see’, ‘They would also have to admit’. In these sentences, all in the early pars in the article, are the arguments supportive of the PM. In terms of the rhetoric used to persuade an audience, these expressions are intended to include the reader, to gather the audience in closer to the position of the writer.

The arguments/evidence produced in favour of the PM are:

  1. ‘Morrison, Prime Minister for a little over seven months, isn’t responsible for the fires’ I agree – Morrison did not go out into the bush to light matches. The statement avoids the criticism that Morrison is the latest in a succession of leaders, ministers and members who have belittled, demeaned and scoffed at the warnings of the scientists. He is also the pointy end of the government, the leader, the public face of the government’s policy.
  2. ‘the states have failed miserably in their duty of care to control forest fuel loads.’ ‘National parks administered by the states have become powder kegs’ ‘watch the state premiers try to absolve themselves’ Translates to: the fires have nothing to do with the federal government because the fuel loads are the responsibility of the states. Much has been written and spoken recently by people involved in fire fighting about the subject of fuel loads.
  3. ‘reasonably astute politician’ The argument in this par is not one that Morrison put forward – or did I miss it? If so, sorry. He is a father who promised his kids a holiday. This ignores the criticisms around the handling of his absence by himself and others.
  4. The direction of the piece swivels around ‘None of this matters to those who have succumbed to the mentality of the lynch mob.’ What follows is harsh criticism of people from whom O’Connor has distanced himself: them, the ones who’ve lost their minds and manners. His criticism of their actions and words seems to come hard for him because it causes him shame and sadness: these were people he seems to have respected previously: ‘These are my fellow Australians’, ‘People I had judged as being reasonably sane and possessed of a sense of fairness’, ‘people I thought possessed of some character reveal a truly ugly side to their natures that has hitherto been kept hidden’

This has the effect of creating sympathy in the audience for his opinion because it is costing him personally to write what he does. He positions himself as being rational and different to the abusers: ‘I struggle to recognise them’, ‘Shamed and saddened to see people I thought possessed of’.

  1. There is a jarring note in this set up: if O’Connor’s shame and sadness is real, then he once considered the perpetrators he is aiming at as being worthy of respect, as being sane, as having character – these people: ‘These are the same people who would howl with disapproval if similar hate speech was directed towards gays or Muslims’ , those ‘still in denial of the election of a conservative christian (sic) to the nation’s highest office’, ‘who strike like cobras’ and Labor voters and/or sympathisers. The language and tone employed in these pars I would suggest is aggressive and righteously judgemental.

The recurring use of the rhetorical question is a classic persuasive technique. When a person asks a question with no idea of the answer, there is openness, vulnerability and curiosity. When the questioner presumes to know the answer anyway, or indeed presumes the answer to be so obvious as to be not worth saying, it is an exercise in power, in control. There are four such questions, each framing one group of the accused.

On another level, these questions allow O’Connor to make a point without having to justify or explain much. For him, they are givens.

  1. The inclusion of Bette Midler, ‘a fading American singer’ who is more usually ‘ranting at Donald Trump’ seems obtuse. One of the effects is to group these hating Aussies with an American entertainer of dubious quality. There is an old trick of tainting by association; this looks like it.
  2. Here is some moral high ground: ‘absence of respect for the office of the PM’. I, too, have watched with dismay through my adult years as the tone of discussion has slowly descended. I respectfully ask Mike O’Connor if he expressed similar sentiments when Alan Jones said, repeatedly, that Julia Gillard should be bundled up in a chaff bag and dumped at sea? Does he accept that anyone directing hatred at anyone else is worthy of censure? Does he accept that people who lie, twist the truth and otherwise manipulate people, ideas and resources for their own ends should be called out? Is it the manner of the calling out that offends O’Connor rather than the substance of the criticism?

For, given the employment of language, sometimes laden with connotations, and persuasive techniques evident in this piece, I wonder if his intention was to roast people for whom he has no time whilst attempting to appear rational and magnanimous … if he wishes to portray his position as Right and those who dissent as Wrong.

I am only a retired English teacher who knows little of political matters, but I had hoped for honesty, intelligence and civility, if not respect, as well as passion in our social discourse. If this were the end of a lesson in language, I would be asking the class not to believe me but to look for themselves, think for themselves and seek beyond the surface. With integrity.