Questions I’ve Asked Myself: Helen Razer

As The Festival of Questions approaches, Helen Razer casts off questions that were always answers from the start.

Illustration

Illustration: Connor Tomas O'Brien

There are, it is often said, no stupid questions. For a long time, I thought this claim could be refuted by turning on the telly. Questions like, ‘Does this calorie-burning thigh-blaster really take care of all my exercise needs in less than 30 seconds a year?’ or ‘Aren’t penalty rates a terrible injustice to billionaire employers like yourself?’ are common to TV – and demonstrably stupid.

Due to a nosy nature – perhaps also to a dad who emphasised throughout my childhood the importance of asking good questions (‘Helen, this habit will help you understand algebra right now, and save you money on lawyers in the future’) – there was never any question that I would spend my life asking questions. And that I would spend a good part of my young life amazed that there could be so many ‘stupid questions’ so publicly asked. Didn’t these people know my dad?

Eventually, I came to realise that ‘stupid questions’ weren’t really being asked. Often, the questions posed in public life or in the media were not questions at all. They were declarations.

When I say that popular media is full of easy antidotes and practically bare of questions, I say it as a producer, not just a frustrated consumer.

Illustration

Illustration: Connor Tomas O'Brien

Let’s look back to June this year. The ABC ‘youth’ ‘news’ programme Hack Live appeared to pose a question, namely: Is Male Privilege Bulls**t? Now, even leaving aside that this proposition is far too equivocal for focused debate – one could answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and be opposed to the fact of male privilege, supportive of the fact of it or entirely sceptical of the fact of it – the parameters of the programme allowed for nothing but noisy opposition.

Dispute, or the appearance of asking questions, became the star, and the rather more important matter of social relations between men and women was a tertiary concern. Some people said ‘yes’ loudly and others boomed ‘no’. A few statistics of uncertain provenance were thrown about by those who had remembered to bring them, but at no point was there any chance that the ‘answer’ could be any more complex than those provided by the worst breakfast radio hosts. The outcome was decided: men and women and feminists and non-feminists disagree! What a wonderful rich world. It has so many perspectives and vive la difference.

Perhaps you saw this choreographed twerk-fest and found it frustrating. I found it frustrating. The matter of our sexed bodies, our gendered lives and our vulnerabilities to injury, either at home or at work, are serious matters that deserve much more than the blind conceit of TV producers who really just want a cage-fight.

A hegemonic and fearful media is, in my view, largely to blame.

I know this, perhaps, more intimately than most. (Promise you I’m not just making some outraged Trump-style statement about ‘fake news’ or ‘lame-stream media’.) When I say that popular media is full of easy antidotes and practically bare of questions, I say it as a producer, not just as a frustrated consumer.

Illustration

Illustration: Connor Tomas O'Brien

I have worked in media of various scales all my adult life, and I can say that the sector is afflicted by unthinking consensus on many matters – the most universal and solipsistic being ‘people are too dumb to want to hear about that’ (which I’ve always understood as ‘I am a dull manager too impatient to understand that’). It is also afflicted by an actual institutional inability to ask questions.

It is the belief of many who work in media that their task is to inform, or to ask ‘the hard questions’. The reality is that media workers are rarely able to address even soft questions without being first entirely confident of the answer.

This is not always the fault of the individual worker. As a writer and broadcaster, I have, in the past, been guided by my editors to cover safe ground, or relinquish my job. I am not making the self-serving claim that I have had anything new to say. I am making the case that media organisations, especially the very big ones, do what all businesses in trouble do: avoid risk and stick with what has been previously seen to work.

We saw this aversion throughout media coverage of the US election. Media might have served as a site for real debate about the future of the world’s most powerful nation. This was razed by the fire of certainty down to the devastated level of Hack Live.

Sure, there were just two presidential nominees. It did not follow that there was just one question to ask – answered with either ‘Trump is an idiot’ or ‘Hillary is a crook’. There were many good unasked questions, of which my dad would approve: What does wage stagnation do to political consciousness? Why is racial hatred such an effective Western campaigning tool? Where does a policy of military isolationism leave the Middle East, and mightn’t it be nice if the US did stop its many violent interventions – even if it was that Trump rat who suggested it?

The outcome was decided: men and women and feminists and non-feminists disagree! What a wonderful rich world ... vive la difference.

Certainly, a few people asked these questions – mostly journalists from independent media, a sector I find is not emptied of all courage and reason. A majority of professional commentators and everyday pundits, however, divided into the hell of opposing conviction. Another cage-match. Another refusal to look beyond the opportunity to wrestle, and to reach instead for a question.

Illustration

Illustration: Connor Tomas O'Brien

It is in the openly declared bias of columnists such as Andrew Bolt that we see this distaste for questions clearly. Huffing authoritatively about ‘solutions’ is his schtick and if one expects him, even for a second, to ask a true question without first devising an answer, one is deluded. The man is not employed for his open mind.

Bolt, frankly, worries me far less than his more liberal fellows in traditional media, and now social media, who will not declare their bias, even to themselves. The ABC TV programme Q&A presents itself as a forum for sophisticated debate but, in practice, offers crude answers, already decided.

It is currently difficult to ask questions. It will always be a damn pain to answer them. Questions have the tendency to produce more questions – so analysis, particularly of the big things like gender or war or racism, can be agony.

But, as I learned when I was little, this trial can save us trouble in the future.

The question of questions is a question of true diagnosis.

The Festival of Questions, on 15 October, is one full day of thoughtful, quick-witted and exhilarating discussions at Melbourne Town Hall.

Portrait of Helen Razer

Helen Razer was a broadcaster and is now a writer. She has written on social and political matters for the Age and the Australian. She now contributes news and cultural analysis to Crikey, the Saturday Paper, the Daily ReviewSBS Online and Atlantic digital publication, Quartz.

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