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April 22, 2024

Weaponising ‘knowledge’ and other foibles

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It was a pleasant morning: crisp, and bright. Birds tweeting. People smiling at each other. Buskers doing their thing. Cafes abuzz. This was downtown Mullumbimby on a sunny, spring day. 

I was in a great mood until, that is, I got involved in an exchange about the Voice with a rather humourless middle-aged man. Chest out, eyes fixed, he launched straight into a tirade against the campaign, informing me that I was variously ‘ignorant’, ‘ill-informed’, ‘stupid’ and ‘naive’. He further advised me to ‘do your research’, which, I understand, is a common refrain from those in-the-know. 

Having been positioned as a gullible type with ‘no idea’ (of what, I’m still not sure), I was given little reprieve from the insistent blasts of weaponised, yet undisclosed knowledge. Initially, I was a little intimidated by the boundless self-confidence and cyclonic verbal conditions. 

At the risk of sounding self-righteous, I was reminded of Bertrand Russell’s observation that, ‘The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts’. Not that I was about to offer this pompous insight to the belligerent one. 

I kept asking, without success, if he’d mind explaining his thesis to me. Frustrating? You bet.

When I finally decided to pull up stumps by informing my detractor that the exchange was a fizzer, he chastised me for being ‘patronising’ and ‘condescending’. It really was a no-win situation. The whole drama ended with the self-appointed sage storming off in a last-ditch flurry of barely concealed expletives. 

High-octane attacks 

None of this should come as a surprise to those Mullumites who, circa 2020, got entangled in vaccine and ‘freedom’ conversations. Verbal fisticuffs were commonplace, as were relationship breakdowns.

Some of the town’s denizens were banned from hairdressers and cafes, while others (like yours truly) chose to exile themselves. These were all unpleasant reminders of where differences of thought and opinion can lead.


But it’s a lot more complicated than that. The personal, high-octane attacks many of us have witnessed are symptomatic of issues wrapped up in personal identity and the sense of political disenchantment and disempowerment. 

Peoples’ beliefs are integral to who they are, to how they see themselves in relation to others, and to how they feel the world ought to be. It’s why appeals to ‘rational’ discussion and sense-making fall over so easily. 

Given our emotional investment in personal beliefs, we can feel affronted when faced with counter opinion. Our reaction is often visceral, angry. This is as much a function of ego as it is of the beliefs themselves. It’s why, when fronted by radical conspiracy theorists (and I’m talking here of the more florid sort, rather than those that have some foundation in falsifiable assertions) there’s such immediate annoyance and even hostility. 

Listen with respect

But where does civility figure in all this? It’s a quaint sounding notion which dinosaurs like me hang on to. In practice, I suppose, it means being able to listen intently and with respect to what another person is saying. It suggests a kind, even compassionate disposition. Easier said than done, of course. 

Potential harm

The problem with this approach is that if we know that certain views can cause actual harm in the real world, then listening respectfully becomes very challenging. 

I’m ashamed to admit that, on more than one occasion, I have invited people with whom I profoundly disagree to ‘get f******’, or I’ve walked away with a brisk adieu of the ‘whatever’ or ‘get a life’ variety. 

These days I’m more inclined to stand there, listen and ask a whole bunch of looping (rather than loopy) questions in the hope that a seed of doubt might be sown. 

I employ a heavily diluted version of the Socratic method in an attempt to find some common ground: places where we can begin to listen and talk to and fro. But for this to occur, considerable patience is required. On the other hand, self-care may require me to simply walk away. 

That said, and here’s the optimistic finale: I have witnessed many of my friends engage with people in a mutually respectful exchange of ideas, without rancour, sometimes with an agreement to disagree, and very occasionally ending up on the same side. 

Kindness, patience and a willingness to listen and engage seem to work wonders in such cases. Better surely, than using mysterious bodies of knowledge to bludgeon one’s detractor. 

Long live civility!

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  1. So… if I have got this right ,
    You went to a market and had an argument about the racial discrimination laws proposed by Tony Albanese.
    I suppose that’s a ‘story’. How interesting ? Keep up the effort.
    Cheers, G”)

  2. In Mullimbomby what else would you expect?. The smell of green pain relief permiating the air, hermits coming down from the hills, all types of people trying to co exist. If you are out there looking for an argument about this highly emotional subject you will, without trying very hard to find one. If you are in public condoning one side you are exposing yourself to ridicule, don’t complain when you find it. Have you considered for one moment you may be wrong?. It can happen.

  3. Never argue with someone who doesn’t know how to argue.
    Besides, people don’t change through rational argument.
    Pathos beats logos every time.

    • Pathos was only held at bay by Ethos and Theos, before they were dialectically deconstructed in western culture by the post-modernists. The enlightenment was not ubiquitous within the masses, and getting them to acknowledge the existence of an objective logos was a feat, still is. Ask them what Logos means, and after a quick Google search, they will tell you it is the Greek word for ‘word’. The only way you can bring them Trivium, is to wield it like a club to beat them into submission..

  4. If you were there as part of the campaign effort Richard, good on you – and not just because I support the side you advocated. It’s called being involved in and part of the democratic process as opposed to the apathy conveyed in the “if you don’t know vote no” slogan.

    Sane people, with even a modicum of intelligence, understand that the validity of an argument does not depend on the volume and vehemence with which it’s expressed.

    There are valid arguments for and against in this issue, there are also some mixed motivations at play. Then there’s just the 🦇💩😜 stuff.


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