The problem of partisan noise

by Jake Quinn

ist2_6677130-fundamentalismDr Jon Johansson is a political science lecturer at Victoria University.  He wrote a paper commenting on his role as ‘critic and conscience in a desperate campaign’ for the 2005 VUW post-election book.

He took on this role, he explains, because he felt that not enough analysis was being paid to the potentially divisive race and Treaty line National, under Brash, was suggesting the country take – a line which Key and his Treaty Minister Chris Finlayson have since abandoned.

During the 2005 pre-election period, Johansson picked the issue because he felt strongly about it.  He took a position and set about creating some interest in debating it.

This is an example of a person taking a position on an issue based on personal and professional beliefs and arguing for it in a constructive and rational manner to stimulate public debate, with the outcome being an increased public understanding.

That is part of the job of an academic. Jon didn’t have an axe to grind, he wasn’t advocating on behalf of a political party or any special interests. He just saw a need and addressed it.

This brings me to the point of this post. Jon lectured his third year NZ politics course in 2005 on the dangers of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists he argued, are dangerous people who are best avoided.

Be they fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, National, Labour or Green Party supporters.

Fundamentalists can be described as persons who adhere strictly to any set of basic ideas or principles and it generally extends to being closed to accepting or even respecting the beliefs of those they oppose.

In the blogosphere that could describe a number of the politically flavoured blogs, which are gaining in both traction and readership.

Many are essentially vehicles for political parties, movements or their supporters that exist for the primary purpose of undermining the ideas of their opponents by creating and perpetuating memes (being cultural ideas which are transmitted by repetition in a manner similar to the transmission of genes).

Ideas they hope will be picked up by the media who occasionally read their sites or are read by supporters who can then parrot them at BBQs or down at the pub.

That sounds reasonable enough doesn’t it. I mean, political parties and their volunteers are allowed to do it, and it could be argued to be effective, so why not?

Well sure, but is this where we want our political commentary to head in the future? (because that is where it seems to be taking us.)  Where we will end up, like in the US, with “democratic party commentator” vs. “republican party commentator” talking head battles as our answer to fair and balanced political discussion.

In a pundit article from December 2008 called ‘The problem of partisan noise’ Johansson draws our attention to some research into how the partisan mind works.

Jon writes: “Westen found that when partisans were faced with threatening information, networks of neurons in the brain get activated. These networks produce distress for the partisan.”

“The point of interest to me is how partisans not only suspend rationality to enable them to filter out any negative information about their preferred candidate, or party, but how their brains actually find ways of reinforcing even more strongly their positive feelings towards their party’s candidate, irrespective of clear evidence to the contrary.”

He concludes “I was taught that reasonable people can agree to disagree, but the incendiary nature of partisan blogs guarantees the opposite.”

Indeed the lack of courtesy observed between some bloggers, especially those hiding their identities behind pseudonyms, is a real concern.

With blogging and bloggers becoming more and more a source of actual commentary on political events these issues are worthy of serious consideration.

The question for now being, should we permit and encourage (by way of simple acquiescence or non-resistance) political blogs to be this way, or should we instead question their relevance and encourage less partisan alternatives.

There is some danger in getting too much of our political commentary from partisans, or fundamentalists, call them what you like. As in the end it leads to a less rational discourse and a less informed citizenry.