Crisis of Opinion

I don’t want to write my opinion, but I have to. I have a new book out, so I need to remind you I exist, nudge you a little closer to visiting your local bookstore and asking for it by name (it’s Monuments, by the way).

Sustaining a career in publishing isn’t newsworthy. A fifth book isn’t as shiny as a first. So, like everyone else with something to sell, I must share my opinion. Ideally in a publication that pays per word, but I’ll settle for a flat fee … or the inclusion of a link to purchase.

But what is my opinion? There are already so many opinions, and so many bad ones, that our media seems reliant on for conflict, content and clicks. Just last week, Ita Buttrose told ABC Breakfast that political correctness had gone too far and Kerri-Anne Kennerley suggested motorists use protesters “as a speed bump”. You know … regular, normal opinions. And before then? I get dizzy thinking about the column inches and cable news tirades, mostly by men like Andrew Bolt, devoted to teenagers – what’s appropriate for them to learn in schools, what’s appropriate for them to think, and what’s appropriate for them to say when cutting world leaders down to size at UN climate action summits.

We’ve been told that attention is difficult to capture, that news cycles must move quickly to compensate, but the protracted response to the youth-led climate strike seems to defy this logic. It seems, it’s always newsworthy and timely to dunk on teens who have the audacity to rise to the occasion and demand adults join them.

Many responses to the climate strike protests relied on anger and misogyny – how dare teenagers organise their protests in air-conditioned classrooms and how dare some of them be girls! Others were less obviously harmful. They were overwhelmingly reasonable. Their authors agreed with the message but not the means of communicating it. Joe Hildebrand made references to Damascene conversions because he’s an intellectual, and to Doogie Howser M.D. because his appetite to be condescending trumps any desire to be relevant.

Unlike most opinion writers, my job has me meeting tens of thousands of teenagers a year. I’ve spent the past seventy days touring schools across the country and I can see the impact our nation’s crisis of opinion is having on our teens.

On the whole, adults underestimate teenagers like the adults who underestimated them. Those who have opinions about teenagers are no different. What they underestimate most is teenagers’ capacity to listen to us. We teach them respect, but when they’re respectful of others’ difference, we call them snowflakes. We teach them expert knowledge, and when they apply that knowledge, we say they’ve been brainwashed.

But they are respectful, and they are smart. That scares some of us.

Over the past seventy days, I have asked teenagers what they would do if they had the power to change the world. The climate is a pressing concern, but not their only one. They want to better support the homeless. They want to end refugee detention. They want to stifle discrimination in all its forms.

Most teenagers reject the injustices we adults have come to accept as the way things are. That’s heartening. I leave schools elated, only to later scroll through Twitter and be consumed with rage. The gulf in maturity between our teens and our adults – the leaders, the talking heads on television, the angry op-ed army in print – is staggering.

Immature as they are, garbage opinions endure. We make room for them in the media and call it discourse, and when we disagree with them, we relish it. We share the garbage opinions with rolled eyes and pithy takedowns, not realising that we’re amplifying those opinions with digital megaphones. And teenagers are, I cannot stress this enough, listening.

Take the myth of political correctness for instance. Every few weeks, it emerges, and every hot take about it is staler than the last. No one really interrogates the actual idea, because like all Sky News After Dark talking points, the notion of political correctness crumbles under an ounce of scrutiny. When framed as treating people with respect, politically incorrect starts to sound a whole lot like civility.

The most popular joke of my teens was saying, “Gay,” when someone did something we didn’t like or understand. It was hilarious. Not allowed now. Some might call it political correctness. Others might wonder why it was ever funny in the first place.

Oh, it’s just stating that people are same-sex attracted. Oh, I can see how that might make them uncomfortable. Oh, I can see that it isn’t really a joke, we’ve just learned that it’s funny, and we laugh out of habit. Oh, we can construct a better joke from the context. Cool.

I say all this because I want you to buy my book, but what are these other opinion merchants selling? Fear. The times are changing, like they always do and always will. If that scares you, they will speak for you. Subscribe. Don’t change the channel.

When talking heads on TV moan about “political correctness gone mad”, teenagers listen. I hope that most dismiss it, but others listen. One teenager raised her hand at Brisbane Writers Festival and asked me if, because she intended to work in politics one day, she should shy away from writing about politically incorrect topics.

For a moment, I worried she wanted the freedom to write whatever she pleased without caring who she’d offend – oh, the Lionel Shriver of it all! – but in fact, she was simply asking permission to write about gay people, because she identified as gay. It was heartbreaking on two counts. Not only did she see her sexuality as a barrier to pursuing a career in politics, she had taken their “We can’t talk about gay people anymore!” to mean she couldn’t reflect on her identity in her writing.

The oppressive bogeyman that is political correctness isn’t the only divisive talking point that filters from our opinion writers down to teenagers. During creative writing workshops in Melbourne recently, I asked teenagers what they could say about our world through a fantasy story premise. One teenager wanted to explore how universities stifle the political expressions of one side of politics (a common right-wing complaint … as if scrutinising poorly thought-out ideas and challenging dangerous rhetoric doesn’t belong in an education institution). Another lamented that feminists were taking over the world (he was startled to learn that thinking his mum and dad were equal made him a feminist too). Another believed that criminals should be sent back to where they came from (he later said that reforming the ways we rehabilitate people might be better).

Now, why do I think thirteen-year-old boys sometimes sound like they’re reading Chris Kenny’s first drafts? Because teenagers listen. They internalise the garbage opinions that any editor or TV producer worth their salt should identify as hollow or dangerous and filter out. But unlike Chris Kenny and his ilk, they’re open to discussion, and often, quick to see the flaws in conservative rhetoric.

We all assume that wisdom comes with age, but what if that was just a lie to keep the young at bay? What if we learned something from our teenagers, so full of empathy, so willing to do away with garbage opinions. There is a standard of discourse we should expect, and there should be consequences for those who don’t meet them. Like, maybe somebody who (allegedly) jokes about motorists mowing down protestors shouldn’t enjoy the celebrity and salary being on television affords them.

But that’s just my opinion.