The essence of the liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.
– Bertrand Russell
There is a problem with intellectual debate in Australia: much of it is characterised by entrenched ideological bigotry, peddled and promoted by Australia’s so-called intellectual elite, the gatekeepers of Mark Davis’ Gangland: a community of elders; self-interested commentators suffering intellectual xenophobia. Whether you read Overland or Quadrant, The Age or The Australian – magazines and newspapers ostensibly committed to liberal ideas and intellectual progress from opposing ends of the political spectrum – mostly you will find a lot of complaining and ridicule, much invective and scorn, but few answers to the problems that plague our society. Lots of opinion but not much progress.
As the saying goes, opinions are like arseholes: everyone’s got one, but they’re not very pretty. The only thing uglier is people presenting opinion as fact. Consider the fact every arsehole considers true: democracy is the best way to structure the world. Yet, we consistently fail at achieving democracy. Talk about the need for a new world order and you’ll get bemused grins and patronising statements about your endearing idealism, because the gatekeepers have an interest (their jobs) in preserving the status quo. And you should hear them talk about us – ‘the youth’ are too ignorant to know enough about writing, let alone writing about how the world should be run. Young writers are told in writing classes and by reviewers, that we need more life experience before we can write well. And that we need to stop swearing.
If a certain quota of experience is required before a person can acceptably communicate their observations of the world, who sets the quota? Is forty too young in the eyes of a 70-year-old reader? It works in the other direction too: I could make the erroneous generalisation that older writers have suffered more corrosive social conditioning than a teenager and are therefore less able to access their independent, individual mind. This would be equally unfair: not all old people are bigots.
In which parallel universe is the fallacy of composition (which typecasting demands) logically acceptable? Yet young writers allow others to do just this on our behalf: by accepting arguments from specific instances to general conclusions, we accept the role we’ve been cast into as though one wilfully ignorant young person renders each of our individual, independent intellects retarded by association.
Young writers are as responsible for this typecasting as those who perpetuate the myth of always-callow youth. Our silence (whether it is forced or aided by others or assumed by ourselves) affirms the myth by omitting the truth. The truth is today’s young writers are in the right position to access, analyse and distribute information to their peers and elders alike and, if we hope to avoid running this planet into the ground and obliterating any hope for widespread improvement of the human condition, we better start listening to what they’re saying.
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During my tenure as Voiceworks editor we published hundreds of young writers and artists and read the work of thousands more. As a book editor at Wakefield Press I worked with a wide range of older authors. The resounding impression I can draw from these experiences, and I stress this is my experience, is that it’s much harder to edit older writers than it is to edit young writers. This may also be because I am a young editor.
The young writers I’ve worked with are generally far more liberal-minded, far more interested in learning new things (including how to behave in an author–editor relationship), perhaps because they’re still painting on a relatively blank canvas. As a child is closer to its inherent goodness and innocence at birth, a young writer is closer to the ignorance they were born into, from which point they are freer to question everything.
We also have an unprecedented level of access to information these days, which helps to combat the inherent human tendency toward confirmation bias (which our fragile intellectual egos demand for support). This means we are able to research and verify things quickly and easily when an editor pulls us up on one fact or another: there is no longer any excuse for assuming you know the facts because you heard something about them on the wireless.
Older writers, especially those who have been widely published and received any sort of critical acclaim, are generally less open to having their work ‘tampered’ with.
Of course this is not a one-size-fits-all cast. I’m going to hazard a generalisation for the sake of talking about this, and say about a quarter of the young writers I’ve worked with are as precious as three quarters of the older writers I’ve worked with.
But it’s not a matter of age that I’m talking about here: it’s a matter of attitude, of personality, which is why typecasting is futile. It is impossible to typecast someone (let alone an entire generation) accurately, because contradicting character traits and values are inherent in the human condition; each passing second, each new experience, keeps our minds in a constant state of flux.
The most talented writers I’ve worked with (both young and old) are aware of their own limitations as authors – they covet criticism because they still want to learn. The most talented writers I’ve worked with are those who are genuinely interested in others, and therefore far more invested in actually communicating with them, rather than talking to them from above. That this sincere interest extends to me, their editor, renders these writers far more amenable to the idea of actually collaborating on their work and creating a superior product.
Invariably it is the oldest, least-talented writers who have had to bolster their own egos from within. As far as I can tell, they feel the best way to do this is by sticking their head up their arse and shouting.
This theory about the rigidity of older authors comes from my experience as an editor, but my experience as a general reader illuminates something else. There is a soft bigotry among younger writers too. Let me explain.
Maybe ninety-five per cent of the books on my shelves (by young and old authors alike) are characterised by pinko-lefty themes. When I realised this I started soliciting recommendations of right-wing authors – novelists, in particular. My inquiries often solicited either the scornful suggestion that, ‘Dude, neo-cons don’t have imaginations, that’s why they’re neo-cons’ or that I should read ‘anything by Ayn Rand’.
If you saw me on the street though, you wouldn’t be surprised that I would get this sort of response: I wear skinny black jeans; my favourite t-shirt is imported from the Californian boutique literature publisher, McSweeney’s; I wore a stupid ironic haircut for a while – side fringe at the front, dreadlock mullet at the back; I have a question-mark knuckle tattoo, rode a single-speed road bike around Adelaide for years, wearing a Crumpler messenger bag; and I like to think of myself as a liberal-minded lefty, because, to bastardise one of my favourite high school sayings, ‘I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than [the] frontal lobotomy [required to hold conservative views]’.
Of course I’m going to have a hard time getting right-wing literature out of my network of hippies, indies, art wonks, perpetual students and dole bludgers. Many in my network are well read in left-wing literature but don’t bother reading anything that might challenge their dogmatic views.
We need to typecast ourselves in order to feel that we fit in somewhere among these sorts of networks. Just as making fashion statements facilitates our movement between social groups, making intellectual statements facilitates our movement between intellectual groups (if we’re sufficiently liberal to want to be free to do this). We need labels (brand labels or ‘no-brand’ labels, as well as labels that are signposts to the concepts we value) to understand who we are and to express ourselves to others.
Young people, I think, are especially susceptible to this peer-to-peer indoctrination because they are still forming their ideas about themselves. Media, our friends, family and teachers all exert pressure on us and how and what we think. In this environment it’s easy to grasp an ideal and not let go. However, we can be aware of this laziness and, as the grip of mainstream media on public opinion continues to loosen, we are increasingly able to think for ourselves and promote our own values.
As we age and develop as humans and writers and thinkers, one of the trickiest balances we need to strike is between how much of this sub-communal identity we should retain and how much we should forgo in the interests of ‘growing up’; in the interests of assimilating with mainstream society. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we spent our youthful creative years bemoaning that patronising claim that we need to grow up before we can write well, only to finally grow up and write and think just like our forebears?
But it’s one thing to challenge the mainstream. It’s a whole other tricky task to challenge the prevailing mindset within our own subcultures.
Among our peers it is especially difficult to break from the pack: sympathising with right-wing writers is considered eccentric among the left; having eclectic, individual aesthetic taste and intellectual persuasion is frighteningly difficult to define, quantify and qualify, so it’s easier to be ‘normal’ than the mainstream alternative. If only it were as dichotomous as that: things are a lot easier to deal with in blacks and whites.
In this grey environment, rendered black and white by the Australian intellectual elite, it is difficult to be taken seriously when questioning revered beliefs of the intellectual left: the human causes of climate change and the viability of representative democracy being two that I can think of.
Consider the following example: after finishing reading Philosophy: Who Needs It, I posted on Facebook ‘I ❤ Ayn Rand’. A friend of mine commented: ‘I hope you’re joking.’ I reciprocated the sentiment, and we ended up having a brief discussion about the things we love and hate about her philosophy. Thank fuck – for a moment there I thought I would have to defriend him; I’m tired of socialising with left-wing bigots.
It is essential that we playfully antagonise each other in this way, lest we find ourselves cloistered in a niche of unquestioning adherence to political correctness that infuses so much of our stifled debate in this country.
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Unless we challenge one another’s thoughts and opinions the leftist elite who over-populate Australia’s literary intellectual community will continue inhibiting the very progress of human thought they claim to advocate, by recycling the same opinions to one another as fact because they’re too timid to question their thinking.
It is the young writers of Australia who are best equipped to challenge this intellectual stasis or status quo for the same reason their detractors would say their writing has no value: they haven’t been around long enough to have become brow-beaten and bigoted; there is still hope they can turn their critical faculties on themselves and resolve to start thinking anew.
Sure, older writers can do this, but it requires embracing the uncertainty that comes with accepting the human condition as a constant state of flux in a way I see young writers doing with ease. We may not know the answers to all the world’s problems, but we hinder our ability to even question the causes of these problems if we accept that answers are finite or final.
We must question everything while acting on the answers as they currently stand for each of us. This is the true meaning of living as a liberal. Whether you vote Liberal in secret or Greens overtly has nothing do with whether you’re liberal. Liberalism is an intellectual attitude, not a political ideology.
In the interests of rejecting orthodoxies, role models don’t come much more solid than Bukowski so I leave you with a stanza from a poem called ‘unemployed’:
do you know something?
those who keep asking the same question
really don’t want to hear the answer.