OK, now I know how unfairly I have been privileged in gaining the education which allows me to write this blog in tolerable English. It was all due to my parents’ reprehensible practice of reading to me at bedtime, which I should forthwith adjure and abominate.

(yes, that may seem like click-bait - but there’s some serious analysis here).

Yesterday, I came across an article entitled “Reading to children at bedtime: ABC questions value of time-honoured practice”, which itself referred to an article entitled “Is having a loving family an unfair advantage?”.

Like so many headlines, both headlines seemed to be aimed at convincing people to read them. The first article started with this:

The ABC has questioned whether parents should read to their children before bedtime, claiming it could give your kids an “unfair advantage” over less fortunate children.

By that point it was pretty clear that I was going to strongly disagree with at least one of these articles. That is, unless I could go one better and disagree with both of them. The love of reading is a gift my parents gave me (or at least encouraged in me) which is tremendously valuable and strongly contributes to defining many different areas of my life.

The discussion of privilege in the ABC article is interesting. But I think the pair of articles and the many comments on both of them show interesting things about audience polarisation. It cut across enough different areas I am interested in that I felt it was worth exploring it at length.

Privilege and equality

I think fairness, equality, and privilege are difficult topics, because different people talking about the same words give them different meanings. And sometimes those different meanings are incompatible. And even when we see that things are unfair or unequal, it’s not always clear what we should do about it.

But I think we can say the following:

  • Some people start life with more privileges than others, and that helps them get ahead (shown here). This privilege can show up in surprising ways.
  • We do not have a good way to give every single person identical outcomes, and I’m not sure that will ever change.

Lowest common denominator thinking?

The first sentence I cited seems to suggest a lowest common denominator approach: If we can’t have everyone getting the advantages of bedtime story reading, maybe it would be fairer if no-one got them. And this is something I am concerned about. Sometimes it feels like that is the only approach suggested: If we level the playing field it might make everyone worse off, but at least no-one is unfairly better off. But surely there’s some room to try and make the less privileged better off without having to make the more privileged worse off? There were plenty of commenters who were concerned by this approach, and yes, I would agree with them. I don’t think getting rid of bedtime reading will help anyone.

Fake News? Or just inaccurate news?

However, my first question was “Does the linked ABC article actually say what the first article suggests it does?” It seemed quite likely there was some context missing. And indeed there was. In fact, while all the quotes in the first article came from the ABC article, I would say the conclusion was exactly the opposite. Take for example this quote, also from the article.

You have to allow parents to engage in bedtime stories activities, in fact we encourage them because those are the kinds of interactions between parents and children that do indeed foster and produce these [desired] familial relationship goods.

One phrase which has come to prominence in recent times is “Fake News”. Originally, this was “news” that was completely made up. Since the first article quotes from the second article, I don’t think I would call it “Fake News”. But since (in my opinion) it drew the opposite conclusion from the article it quotes from, it has many of the same characteristics as “Fake News”.

When the original “Fake News” came out, I read some of the articles from both sides and was surprised people took them seriously. They were presenting extreme scenarios that didn’t seem likely to me, and yet seemingly people just took them as fact without question. The “Fake News” matched their preconceptions of their enemies (or maybe just their worst fears).

The same is true with the first article here. The majority of commenters leap in to talk about how terrible the ABC and/or the Left are, and that it’s all a big conspiracy and a waste of public money. I’m pretty certain they haven’t got these ideas from this article: they have already made up their mind that the ABC is terrible, and this article, right or wrong, just provides further confirmation. But reading some of the comments: What are they expecting (or fearing) from the Left? That they will ban bedtime reading? That there will be inspectors knocking on every door checking whether there is illicit reading of these bedtime stories?

As I’ve said, I disagreed with the idea of getting rid of bedtime reading just as much as any of the commenters. But it didn’t seem like a very likely idea. And since I didn’t start by viewing the ABC or the Left as terrible organisations, I wasn’t going to accept it without checking the original. And when I checked the original, I was unsurprised to find that the quotes came from a much more nuanced discussion which led to the opposite conclusion.

I then assumed that the majority of those commenting on the first article hadn’t read the ABC article, but had just accepted the first article as true because it matched their worldview. At least, I assumed that until I read the comments on the ABC article, and was surprised to see some of the same comments there. From people who had hopefully read the article.

I’m sure that I’m not a perfect fact-checker, and that I too have my blind-spots. But is there something I’m missing? Have I failed to see the dark agenda of the ABC because I agree with it or am at least willing to tolerate it? It really looks to me like a rational discussion, but if the commenters are anything to go by I’m in the minority thinking that.

The power of judicious misquotations

I dislike seeing arguments misquoted or misrepresented, because it can easily end up polarising the discussion. And I think that’s what’s happening in the first article. It’s polarising, because you can always find a friendly source who says the enemy is saying something outrageous, and it’s very easy just to accept what that friendly source says without checking it. It’s like C.S. Lewis said: sometimes lies can be stronger (and harder to refute) when they are mixed with a little truth.

I see this pattern a lot in religious discussions. I read many posts from both theists and atheists that are discussing or rebutting posts by someone from the other side. And I frequently find that if I go back to the original post, it feels completely different from the simplified version in the rebuttal. And, much as I’d like “my side” to be the ones getting it right, I don’t think this problem is limited to one side. It seems to be a fundamental part of a polarised discussion that the opposing sides talk past each other rather than with each other. I’m probably not exempt from it (please - if you see it, let me know).

How do you find the official voice of the enemy?

I think it is common in polarised discussions to assume that any statement from any person involved with “the enemy” is reflects the official view of everyone on that side. That there’s a big “leftist” or “atheist” conspiracy to force their views on us. Or a big “conservative” or “fundamentalist” conspiracy. They’re all working together, and they all share the same opinions and the same hidden agenda. But I just don’t think that’s true.

In this case, the ABC is a large broadcaster, with lots of people working for it, and it is meant to present a variety of views. I’m pretty certain that they publish articles and conduct interviews on many topics that aren’t official editorial policy, let alone the policy of “the Left” at large. If you were to try to control the views and ideas they present, how far would you have to go? What measure would you use for deciding what is acceptable? I suspect that no matter where you draw the line, some will complain that the public broadcaster is being paid to present views they don’t agree with, while others will complain that it shows its bias by not presenting a sufficient variety of views.

This story isn’t an editorial or even an opinion piece, but an interview on “The Philosopher’s Zone”. This looks like it is a forum for raising and discussing important questions, not necessarily for giving definitive answers. The first article completely omitted this context, and suggested that any statements in this discussion were official proclamations of the ABC. And most commenters seized on this, seemingly because the statements matched their preconceptions of the broken worldview of “the Left”. It’s easy to demonise the opposition this way, but I don’t think it’s very productive.

Don’t ask awkward questions?

The impression from the first article and many of the commenters is that these are things that are so self-evidently true that it’s a waste of time and money exploring them. In fact, that it is wrong to even ask the questions because you might get the wrong answer. In quotation world, “the ABC has questioned some fundamental belief” is a terrible thing. But I don’t think we gain anything by making things sacred cows that can’t be questioned. Particularly when the questioning is a discussion of what we believe, why we believe it, and what the consequences are. It’s neither an unthinking acceptance or an unthinking rejection of authority.

We haven’t wasted our time if we question something, investigate it, and come to the conclusion that the original view was correct. Why? Because that investigation can give us a better understanding of why that original view was correct. And if it is mostly correct but has problems, we then have a way of addressing those problems.

In this case, I think the existence of privilege is objective fact. Acknowledging it shouldn’t be controversial. Through no fault of their own, some kids get a better chance than others. And to some extent that’s life.

However, what (if anything) we do about that privilege is a completely different question. There are many ways we could respond to it. We don’t have to follow the acknowledgement with a race to the bottom attempt to strip away that privilege. We could decide that it was regrettable, but any intervention would be affecting the right to self-determination of the parents and children involved. We could look for ways to give more children that privilege. Or we could look for other opportunities we could provide for those who lack this particular privilege.

However, we don’t get any of this if we decide that our current concept of the family is inviolable, and that none should question its mysterious workings.

A waste of public funds?

Finally, does it make any difference that the ABC is publicly funded? Should it bow to the will of majority and only publish points of view that they will approve of? Many of the commenters seemed to think so, and it’s an argument organisations like the ABC tend to attract.

But I think it’s completely wrong. Populism is somewhat OK for a commercial organisation that needs to attract an audience. But a publicly funded organisation should probably be trying to give diverse views (so it can represent the entire population), and it should also be trying to give the best views available. Neither of these things will necessarily lead to presenting the view of the majority. Because (horror!) sometimes the majority is wrong.

For a related argument, I highly recommend Bertrand Russell’s essay Freedom and the Colleges (available here). It makes many good points about academic freedom and how it relates to the opinions of the majority, but perhaps this quote is most relevant:

Taxpayers think that since they pay the salaries of university teachers they have a right to decide what these men shall teach. This principle, if logically carried out, would mean that all the advantages of superior education enjoyed by university professors are to be nullified, and that their teaching is to be the same as it would be if they had no special competence.

Some conclusions

Should we consider privilege? Yes.
Should we try to hurt everyone with a “lowest common denominator” form of equality? No.
Should we place rules on what questions are even allowed to be asked? Preferably not.
Should we jump to conclusions about how terrible anyone is who seems to disagree with us? Absolutely not.
Should we quote other articles accurately? Definitely.

That didn’t seem too hard. Am I being oversimplistic?