Discussion is not cage-fighting

Who knows why Ayaan Hirsi Ali cancelled at the last minute her tour of Australia. What we do know is that it must be devastating for the event organisers, who will have been preparing for this very visible, very contentious, very much anticipated visit for a very long time. If security is an issue, as has been reported, from whom does the threat come? Surely not the group of women who criticise Hirsi Ali as “not speaking” for them.

We are in a real pickle… sorry to use such a lame expression, but somehow, more emotive language seems wrong here. It’s a pickle all right, when we stamp and grunt and shout and push and even threaten to shove, hurt and silence, those we don’t agree with.

We heard philosopher Raimond Gaita talk with writer Robyn Davidson in Maryborough this past weekend, about place and memory. They both also spoke about the need to be able to criticise one’s own country, to be able to voice concerns as part of what they called love of country.

They both worried about the way nationalism silences people. In a big room full of people, I sat next to a man who started to get a bit agitated when these writers advocated criticism as a healthy and important part of social democracy, but I could also feel him settling a little, as they went on to talk about this as expressing their deep and abiding love for their country.

It’s when the emotions kick in that we start to want to defend both ourselves and our ideas, our way of thinking. And that rise of the emotional need to defend is exploitable. Those who want to control, who want power, manipulate the need to defend into a desire to attack. Discussion becomes impossible, and opponents line up like pugilists in a cage, striking out to hurt and defeat. That way chaos lies.

I’m hoping that Bendigo Writers Festival this year may be, in small part, a forum where we can try to unknot those feelings, letting our fists unclench, finding pleasure and even joy in the simple act of accepting what we don’t agree with. It’s probably hoping for too much, but even making a place where we value thoughts that are open and inviting discussion, rather than fully-formed and closing down discussion – even that is worth doing.

As Rai Gaita said in Maryborough, a friend is someone to whom you can say the truth: maybe a writers festival is a sort of friend to a society badly in need of comfort.

One thought on “Discussion is not cage-fighting

  1. If we can’t discuss, maybe even debate, ideas at a writers’ festival, then where else? I welcome constructive discussion in differences of opinion. It’s gotta beat shouting at each other on social media…


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