"This", said my friend, "...is the age of dogma". How true, I thought, as she went on to describe how dogmas economic, religious and social have come to frame public discourse.
The rise of dogma - whether that of religion, economic and social theory or politics - is changing society and is too-seldom questioned by the media. The attitudes and beliefs of the fringe have been propelled into the mainstream and, in doing so, have infiltrated and infected society's middle ground. The outcome has brought a shift in the way people perceive trends and changes in society and the attitudes they adopt towards them. A profound reshaping of society is taking place. Many say that this is what is happening in the US and Australia with the ascendency of conservative - radical Right some say - governments.
In the West, dogma has for the most part been a phenomena of the social fringe, especially since the increase in affluence following World War II, a phenomenon that boosted the numbers occupying society's middle ground. It has not always been so - the 1920s and 1930s saw the vying for ideological influence by both the Left and the Right with the outcome, in Germany, of the stampede of the National Socialist Party from fringe to mainstream.
For those concerned about maintaining a humane society in which the wellbeing of the populace, rather than the economic system, is central focus, the surge of the theories of the political fringe into society's middle ground is troubling. In both the US and in the Australia of the Howard government, harder, less compassionate and sometimes mean-spirited attitudes are now common among those that would have, in only the recent past, constituted the social middle ground. In their worst manifestations, these beliefs have a lot in common with social Darwinism.
The squeezing of the social middle, not by pushing it towards the fringe but through the incursion of the fringe agenda into its core, is that it surreptitiously changes society. The middle ground is traditionally the ideological location of common sense and reason. Its shrinkage polarises society and makes space for the ideologues of both Right and Left. The middle is also secular and the religious who inhabit it have traditionally combined reason with spiritual belief in the making of political and social decisions. It has been a place where different ways of thinking, different outlooks, would come together to work out the solutions that benefited most.
With the diminution of the middle, the fringe agenda is well placed to force its beliefs and attitudes on all. Abortion, for example, is revived as an issue as the religious fringe and its political fellow-travellers attempt to remove it as an act of individual choice and impose their beliefs on women. In this and, potentially, in other areas, rational free choice - in a society that claims to be based on reason and freedom of choice - is discarded in favour of a simple authoritarian solution that will only increase social enmity.
In Australia, we have our own manifestations of the increasing influence of the fringe on national political life and social attitudes. An example is the governmental, business and academic-sponsored championing of the ideologies of the so-called “free market”. This has pushed economics into prime place on the political agenda. Economics has always been important but it is only since the 1970s that it has achieved the primacy it enjoys today. So-called economic rationalism, itself a theoretical ideology popularised by US academic, Milton Freedman, is afforded an almost quasi-religious status in some governmental and business quarters.
Other examples are the religions. The two major brands, Catholicism and Anglican, are in Sydney under a leadership with, shall we say, a more fundamentalist outlook. To some extent this has polarised church-goers yet, just as these theologians assert their views on what is properly Christian and what is not, attendance at their churches continues to decline. It seems the congregations are either dropping out or are defecting to the less-formal evangelical sects.
The problem that arises when the fundamentalist and some of the evangelical sects pursue their social agenda in public is that it coincides, inadvertently or deliberately, with the political agenda of the free market, the Liberal government and the radical right. It is in this way that issues such as abortion and homosexuality are resurrected. Pushing their social agenda onto the public, rather than keeping it within their congregations, pits Christianity against other social sectors as a combatant rather than as a conciliator. This is militant Christianity which, at its most conservative, appears to have little to distinguish it from analogous fundamentalist attitudes held by movements such as the Taliban.
Some have suggested that the spirit of the times is a factor in the rise of fundamentalist ideologies whether economic, religious or social. The statement could just as easily be turned around to suggest that it is these ideologies that create the spirit of the times. All this does is demonstrate the reciprocal relationship between ideas and polity. The attitudes and practices of individuals combine to influence the “spirit of the times”, but dominant ideas certainly influence public attitudes. This suggests that those who actively promote ideas have a greater chance of influencing society and creating a public openness to their political agendas. Neo-conservative ideologues know this only too well.
The media must accept some responsibility for the rise of the neo-conservative fringe agenda. Lacking has been a sustained critique of that agenda and the ideas it is based on. In all but a few cases the role of questioning and analysis in journalism has been hard to find.
If Australia is to remain a society based on rational choice and one in which compassion, rather than social Darwinism, guides public and governmental policy towards particular social groups, then the media has to wake up and analyse and challenge the agendas that are reshaping our country.