Pulling the Trigger on Public Debate

October 11, 2018

Mannkal scholars were recently privileged to attend Brisbane’s LibertyFest 2018 Conference, which starred an impressive array of free-thinking speakers. The Conference was a fantastic opportunity for scholars to critically engage with knowledgeable and interesting speakers to explore a range of thought-provoking and controversial topics.

I found the sessions on public discourse and triggering the amygdala with Senator Amanda Stoker and Dr Brendan Markey-Towler particularly interesting and relevant to my studies. These two speakers clearly articulated what is one of the greatest threats to liberty: ineffective communication.

One would think that globalisation would make communication easier, however, there has been a noticeable polarisation of views, most notably in the United States, as well as here in Australia. Perhaps some of this is due to triggering the amygdala: the part of the brain which neural messages travel through first and controls emotion. Somewhat reminiscent of Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, Dr Markey-Towler’s discussion aptly laid out the primary reason for why we often struggle to get our message across. When we contradict someone’s emotional core we ‘trigger’ them to shut down to further argument, regardless of how logical it may be. By recognising and tailoring our arguments to an individual’s six preferred traits[1] we can avoid triggering this ‘weapons-grade confirmation bias’ to improve communication and re-open public discourse.

Of course, giving special status to a minority opinion does not help free and open debate, as Senator Stoker rightly pointed out. If eliminating debate is the first step towards removing individual choice, then requiring corporations to explain their governance approach when they depart from norms (such as corporate social responsibility) is surely the second step. And if we lose debate, then unelected and unaccountable public servants, motivated by special interest groups, will decide on how to impose the concept of the social license into the private sector. As a result, social norms will transform to become more extreme versions of what they currently are.

Overall, Mannkal’s scholarship for university students to attend this year’s LibertyFest was a valuable opportunity to network with like-minded individuals, explore some controversial and engaging topics while recognising the values of free speech and liberty. The biggest takeaway from the conference was an awareness that we need to speak differently to people, by starting with emotion, rather than immediately going on the offensive. Framing our arguments in this way is likely the best way to protect our individual liberty.

[1] Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Purity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression


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Michaela Gartz is our 2018 Hong Kong Scholar for the 3-week Asia Institute for Political Economy program, organised by The Fund for American Studies. She also interned at the Lion Rock Institute in HK in the week prior to the AIPE program.

Micha is completing a Bachelor of Commerce at Curtin University, majoring in Economics and International Relations.