Polarised or Posing for civility?

I went along to the Polarised long form debate between Douglas Murray and Cornel West in Auckland. It also toured in a number of Australian cities who had similar but not identical experiences.

The “Polarised” title itself is paradoxical. The sub text there is “lets have a game of divide and conquer” but sell tickets at the door. We were even told that the model for the series was the Gore Vidal / William Buckley Jnr debates from 1968 with no trace of irony.

Thankfully, the guests had the sense to dial it back a bit from pure spectacle into more of a rolling discussion across a range of topics. I understand that controversy and click bait sells tickets but I am pleased that the event actually happened in Auckland and we got to hear most of it.

What I was most impressed with is that both Murray and West genuinely appeared to respect each other and despite huge differences of opinion they were able to offer a civil example of good behaviour that we just don’t get enough from a culture which values soundbites over insight.

A welcoming tone and respectful consideration are far more life affirming than what we often see online and in the media where people figuratively lob grenades at each other and just walk away. There were some good points about the need for sincerity and the lack of it from some players.

There are too many people repeating half truths and second hand opinions about a situation rather than taking a closer look and listening to opposing opinions.

This is not an easy thing to facilitate and the moderator was super earnest but out of her depth most of the time. I acknowledge that when the camera’s and lights are on not everyone can perform especially with a couple of very sharp and opinionated dudes who have done this all before.

It seemed to me that a few questions about inequality and whether hate speech was a thing were glossed over and not really engaged with at all but the important thing is that we heard a couple of very different perspectives.

Murray made some good points like “Gosh people can be so brave talking about people rather than to them” on social media was the gist of one observation. Another comment by Murray was not so fortunate. He said something to the effect that “the left has an advantage because they want the same things everywhere”… to which Wests reply of “peace and justice” was a beautiful thing.

I’m sure there were activists from both the right and the left at the event but I also think that many attendees would be centrist and adverse to political extremes by anyone. New Zealand has a different political culture to the UK, US, and Australia and to their credit it seems like West and Murray did think about that. There was some solid discussion and the background theme of upholding the civil society is one that I agree with.

I’d like to think that everyone at the event was able to take a deep breath and to think about some of the issues that were raised but that wish was blown away at question time.

Many of the questions took the form of points scoring at one of the speakers, grandstanding or were just irrelevant. It was like most of the questioners were so intent on pushing their own barrow that they completely missed the tone of the discussion to that point.

The irony of the event was that most of the questioners appeared not to have heard a word at all. I hope I am wrong and that a bigger group went away with ideas to consider and think about. Personally I was hoping for more poetry and I caught glimpses of that but not so much.