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Genetics in Political Thinking & Bias in Australian Journalism

Tahlia Palmer: Steady Eye

Genetics in Political Thinking & Bias in Australian Journalism

Andrew Ryan

The news has been full of conservative bullshit the last week or so. I don’t want to go in to details, it’s too frustrating, so instead I’ll be exploring a different view of what goes on in the minds of humans, as relates to their political views.

This thought process started while I was reading an article about the differences between people who lean on the opposite ends of the political spectrum. One of the ideas that it put forth is that when humans feel safe, they are more likely to lean towards the left, and in times of crisis and danger, they are more likely to lean towards conservative modes of thinking.

There have been a few studies about the role of genetics in influencing our political understandings, and this one has concluded that while genetics do not cause party leaning, genetics DO influence how strongly we hold on to our acquired political beliefs. This one, conducted on twins, concludes that genetics has an important role in shaping political ideologies, but again, not a particular party leaning.

So what does this mean?

I’m tempted to think that we’re born with a coded way of processing the information we’re given. For example, perhaps I am coded with something that makes me feel pain when I look at the ills of the world, and perhaps others are coded with something that makes them react to those same ills with a touch more coldness. The difference between “Marriage for everyone if they want it!” and “Letting the gays marry makes me feel uncomfortable.”

Some people are also born with a coding for partisanship; that is, aligning yourself with a particular cause, and getting all amongst the group/s which feel the same way about that cause… which means there must also be a genetic coding for non-partisanship, where people are not drawn to political grou-think, and perhaps instead look at everything from a point-by-point perspective. Or maybe they are coded to not care about politics at all. I guess this explains why Australian media can so easily influence the population.

On that note, I was watching an episode of an SBS show called “Cultural Intelligence”, a show that holds forum to an open debate on particular topics surrounding culture in Australia. The questions for this episode, the first of the series, were: “Do media frame our understandings of Australian diversity and the asylum seeker debate? Are our views polarised by the kinds of media we consume?”

In the audience were a wide variety of commenters, involved in politics and journalism, from a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It was interesting viewing, though certainly a little frustrating when certain forum members- namely, journalists working for News Corp news papers and commercial television channels- were actively dismissing the critical analysis of the state of Australian media, as put forth by those involved in teaching journalism theory or researching the effect of media on the general public.

In other words, these men were poo-pooing academia and intellectual discussion, with one crying loudly “So we’re on conscious and subconscious now, is Freud in the room??”, scoffing as he spoke. It wasn’t very becoming, but he did it in such a way that attested to a sort of outside vindication of what he was saying. He wasn’t shy about his staunch anti-intellectualism, that’s for sure.

My interpretation of their criticism was that intellectualism alienates the general public. In fact, one of these men accused one of the academics of viewing the public as “the great unwashed”, something I’ve heard before in debates where critical analysis comes in to it. In my view, this is more condescending than any attitude the academics they are criticising had originally, and in itself, the statement is incredibly leading, in that it could goad certain people into a sort of intellectual lynching.

Realistically, there is a big difference between an educated opinion on journalism, and a non-educated consumption of it. It is neither good or bad, it is simply informed or uninformed understanding; contextualised or non-contextualised reading. I agree with the academics on this show in that anyone who works as a journalist, anyone who calls themselves a journalist, should be taking in to account that the general public maybe or may not be informed about everything being spoken about in their news media. In an age where opinion and corporate (and political) bias so obviously infiltrates news media, journalists should be transparent in their communications with their audience in how much of what they are writing is analysis or opinion, as opposed to straight up fact.

It is not about assuming that the general public is stupid, as these conservatives are accusing the academics. Nooooo, it is about acknowledging and tailoring to the difference in understanding and education. One cannot assume that a 22 year old mother of 2 kids living in Resovoir, Victoria, who finished high school in year 10, has the same understanding of media bias than that of a 22 year old living in Cottesloe, Western Australia with no children who is about to finish their bachelor degree in engineering, will have… every individual is different, has different backgrounds, different levels of education, different cultural understandings.

In a multi cultural society, it is the job of the journalist to take all of these factors in to account when they tell the stories they’re paid (or, sometimes, not paid) to tell, about the people who are not trained to effectively tell their stories. Some journalists need to sell their papers and their works, sure, but the ethics of their craft (and civilisation is founded on a delicate, humanist understanding of ethics, after all) dictate that the act of the sale is no reason to intentionally mislead the public in to purchasing things based on the spectacle of drama, of intrigue, of tragedy. No one should be dumbing anything down, no one should be condescending, no one should be sensationalising- anyone working as a news journalist should be, in my opinion, speaking in plain English as much as possible, and keeping bias out of it. It’s that simple.

So, with all that research I’ve been reading about, I’ve been thinking that maybe, maybe, these right leaning journalists, the ones dismissing the academics on the aforementioned Cultural Intelligence panel, are leaning that way because not only were they born with the genetic coding which leads them in to behaviours that fall in line with the selfish individualism of capitalist society, but they are also feeling a bit threatened by how rapidly society is changing away from traditional capitalist modes.

One only has to look at the amount of freelancers and start-up companies working in new technologies and not looking to gain a huge profit, and how many of these individuals and companies are interested and investing in sustainable energies and technologies etc, to see that traditional notions of industry are changing. A more technocratic society is emerging, where economics is beginning to be viewed differently, thanks to the credit-crisis fallout so many westerners under the age of 30 have seen happen in their lifetimes.

I have no conclusion for this. There is no conclusion. The thing I’ve noticed going on in discussions about genetics influencing political opinion is a resounding: “Uh, so… what do we do with this information?” There probably isn’t much we really can do, other than keep it in mind. So uh, just keep it in mind. Try not to let the bastards get you down etc?