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Meeting of Minds

At the end of a year in which all we ever seemed to do was argue, it might seem odd to say that we need to take a clear and decisive stand on ratcheting up the level of public debate. But we do. Though maybe we don't. No, no, we definitely do.

Why? Because we're caught in a cycle of what American professor Deborah Tannen, author of The Argument Culture, calls "agonism". The word comes from agonia, the Greek word for war. It stands for the ritualised, knee-jerk, automatic use of warlike TV debate formats, which polarise people but do not always, in the end, give a clear indication of where the key players stand.

Example? The gay community is outraged that Auckland Mayor Dick Hubbard's letter to MPs, opposing the Civil Union Bill, is in direct contradiction of the support he indicated for gays while engaged in media debates during the campaign.

Staged confrontations - such as that between Hubbard and John Banks - create drama, controversy and ratings. But, as the US election result just showed, they don't even necessarily engage or sway the hearts and minds of voters. Why not? When there's a ruckus in the street outside your home, you fling open the window to see what's happening, says Tannen. But if there's a row outside every night, you shut the window and try to block it out. That's what's happening, many believe, to our public discourse.

We have adopted the idea that the best way to explore an idea is a debate that requires opponents to marshal arguments for one side and ignore, deny or ridicule points that support the other side.

Viewers often end up thinking that there is no solution to the problem because the two sides are so rancorously polarised. Journalist Ross Gelbspan showed how this approach to news coverage of global warming gives the impression that scientists are evenly divided between sceptics and those who are convinced, whereas in fact most scientists agree that global climate change poses a real threat.

The agonistic approach can create an atmosphere of defensive-ness and fear - we saw it here over the foreshore and seabed debate. Tannen has tracked how animosity spreads "like a fever" when there's an ethic of aggression and hostility. Testosterone levels Editorial D25rise - and that's before Coronation St comes on.

That lust for opposition means that commonsense compromise is not valued - Don Brash's recent changed stance on superannuation proved that. But Oprah Winfrey has changed to a more inquisitive, less confrontational format and has the highest-rated show in her slot in the US. Here, John Campbell - in newspaper reports that repeatedly use the words "battle" and "war" - says his new show will be different. "The old conflict model is boring everyone shitless," he says. Only the bleepwits on talkback would disagree. Certainly, the Corngate confrontation with the Prime Minister didn't enlighten anyone. Nor did the et al art fiasco.

Even in a highly charged election-year debate, it is still possible to test the common ground between sides. Nothing can beat the drama of reaching a solution on screen. At the very least, on gridlock issues, there is a transformative power in intensely animated discussions where the debate moves forwards on agreed points. Tannen cites US audiences erupting into applause when debaters are asked which opposition points they found convincing.

In the end, as Michael King pointed out, there is a "good-heartedness" to New Zealanders that saves this country from the worst excesses of animosity. There is no stomach for another divisive Orewa debate. And, despite the dismay of gays at the "monumental betrayal" by Hubbard on the civil union issue, there is a reassuring openness about most New Zealanders.

I was reminded of that when organising to spend time at the beach over New Year with friends. One happens to be gay - he's also charming, well-educated and exactly the kind of person whom Professor Richard Florida (quoted by Hubbard) says will advance the rise of a wealth-creating creative class. Not having been born here, he was considering living permanently overseas after a relationship breakup, despite his love for this country and the fact that his passport proves that he has spent a great deal of time here. What helped convince him to stay? It wasn't the Civil Union Act. As this man came through Customs after a long trip away, an immigration officer studied his passport, then looked up and said, very simply, "Welcome home, sir."