Our public moralists and storytellers

Listmania has spread to the Australian Literary Review, the new literary periodical being given away as an insert once a month in The Australian. They’ve given us the third list of top public intellectuals in the last couple of years, following on from the SMH list and the Education Age list.

The ALR list (also here, for when Rupert takes the original report into pay-to-view) and the SMH list used similar methodologies to make their selections, with the ALR asking 200 (unnamed) ‘scholars’ for suggestions, and the SMH a wider but smaller (100) group of people with some connection to the intellectual world. Inevitably there are some choices (or rankings) that seem a bit odd: how can Marcia Langton rank above Geoffrey Blainey? But overall most of the people mentioned are credible candidates for a list of public intellectuals, and many names appear on all three lists.

Despite the diverse interests and views of the people who made it to these lists, one striking thing is that they are dominated by storytellers and moralists. They are people who tell stories about some aspect of Australian and sometimes international life or history (eg on the latest list Blainey, Inga Clendinnen, Helen Garner, Robert Hughes) and / or moralisers (eg Robert Manne, Peter Singer, Clive Hamilton, Tim Flannery, David Marr).

Social scientists, people who use statistics to explain and advise Australia, are conspicuously absent. There are no economists on the ALR list (Hamilton has an economics PhD, but that’s not the basis of his public prominence). Politicians are also rare: Bob Brown and Carmen Lawrence, moralists both, and Barry Jones, a classic case of a good memory being confused with intellectual talent. Just two people on this list have any power beyond their own words to shape the world around them: Noel Pearson and one of my bosses, Glyn Davis.

The shortage of people with real power is not so surprising. There is little time for reflective writing if you have pressing day-to-day responsibilities. It is the omission of social scientists that I am curious about. Though they probably have more influence on policy than most of the 40 people on this list, their work is not easily accessible to the general public, even when it appears, as it often does, in newspapers. The human brain is surprisingly bad at remembering numbers, and struggles to recall or even understand the analytical arguments that flow from them. Narrative is our more natural mode of understanding, and people respond better to thinkers who use it to convey their message. Similarly, right and wrong in the moral sense is something that people sense and respond to from a very early age, while right and wrong in a mathematical sense is hard to acquire and rarely provides conclusions that resonate. As Stalin is reported to have said, in one of his rare moments of insight, ‘one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic’.

For aspiring public intellectuals, there are clear messages in all this: go for stories over statistics, and anecdotes over analysis.

9 thoughts on “Our public moralists and storytellers

  1. ..which is why we get politicians who can tell endless lies about their reasons for doing things (invading countries for example) as long as it makes a good “us vs. them” story.

    It also explains why sex scandals are such poison to the family values crowd. We can now safely say that “family values” is just code for “covering up pedophilia” – from the churches right up to elected officials

    What isn’t explained is why that great public moralist, Alan Jones, wants to keep his sexual orientation secret so close to his chest. There is no shame in it, unless you lean rightwards.

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  2. Poor old Mr Pick-a-Box. First Michael Costello in The Australian, then Ken Parish on his blog, and now Andrew – all picking on him on the same day!

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  3. “his sexual orientation secret so close to his chest” Do I sense some sort of tautology here. A bit of a Mossipism I reckon.

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