When will progressives learn to speak to people? Not at people. Speak to people. A great example of the wishy washy language that the left uses to try to convince people of the merits of their ideas is contained in this article about wealth inequality by Richard Denniss. Denniss wrote this fantastic piece in response to Amanda Vanstone’s whine about the poor-rich-people getting picked on which conveniently forgot to mention that wealth doesn’t trickle down and was therefore total bullshit. Denniss clearly knows his stuff. If you’ve not heard of him, you can read all about him and his progressive think tank, the Australia Institute in the Saturday Paper. So you’ll notice I did just say that Denniss’ piece was fantastic, but I also called it wishy washy. Contradictory yes, but keep up because what is fantastic to the left can be completely wasted on those who don’t share the left’s values. And this is what I’m talking about when I say progressives need to learn to speak to people in a way that will actually convince them to think differently about something they thought they had firm views on. Like ideological positions towards wealth inequality. For instance.
Before you go and say ‘who does this nobody blogger think she is telling a certified expert think tanker (do they actually think inside tanks?) how to communicate’, let me preface my argument by explaining that I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have many of them. Because I too can’t understand for the life of me why anyone would have voted for Tony Abbott, and every time I get into a conversation with one of them I have to take a deep breath and walk quickly away before I lose my temper. But we need to remind ourselves that we can’t understand why anyone would vote for Abbott because we don’t think like Abbott voters. And it’s not until we work out how they think that we can possibly even begin to think about how we speak to them. Not in a weird ‘let’s hypnotise or brainwash Abbott voters to convince them never to do that again’, (although if anyone has any thoughts on this I’d be happy to hear them). But what I’m saying is that progressives need to learn how non-progressives understand the world before we can explain why progressive policies are in everyone’s best interests. Because we do believe that don’t we?
A perfect example of this is Denniss’s very logical argument about wealth equality, or fairness, being good for all of us. This is 100% true, and I’ve written before about how this concept should be adopted by the Labor Party as the overarching narrative to define their policy purpose. When I read an article about the ill-effects of wealth inequality for all of us, rich and poor alike, I nod my head and in total agreement I say ‘well that’s sorted, we need to ensure there is wealth equality, done, let’s move on’. But I would say that wouldn’t I. And so would most other people who share my values and are likely to agree with Denniss’s article. So he’s preaching to the converted. But what about non-progressives and those who don’t sit firmly in either camp? These are the people we need to think hard about and work out what they see when they read such an article. Words like ‘fairness’ and ‘equity’ are littered throughout progressive communications, and of course they are feel-good words for people who value fairness and equity inherently. But what about those who believe in the merits of a free market above all else, who when a left-winger says ‘fairness’, hear ‘you’re trying to take away money I’ve earned to give to someone who hasn’t earned it, which is not fair’. It’s the same word, but the meaning behind it, and what is understood when it is heard is completely different for people with different values.
I said I didn’t have all the answers to this dilemma, but let me at least try to give you an example of how we could try speaking to Abbott voters (who, by the way, definitely don’t read this blog so please don’t point this out in the comments because I am fully aware I’m talking to progressives plus creepy conservative Ian Hall). But just say a progressive think tanker is writing in a mainstream newspaper. When they’re talking about wealth equality and the reasons why we need to reduce wealth inequality for the betterment of all of us – it’s the growing the pie rather than divvying up the same sized pie argument – they need to stop relying on statistics. Denniss used an awesome one right at the start of his very awesome article: ‘Australia’s richest seven people have more wealth than the bottom 1.73 million households combined’. To someone who thinks that wealth inequality is a problem, this statistic clearly shows its urgent magnitude. But to most Abbott voters, wealth equality is not a problem. It is an aspiration. Those richest seven people are heroes to many right-leaning Australians. To the aspirant, free-market-loving, keeping-ahead-of-the-Joneses-by-buying-a-better-than-your-neighbor’s-new-car-every-three-years and only-being-happy-when-you-have-the-most-expensive-house-on-the-street and the-wearing most-obvious-wealth-consumption-designer-clothes section of the Australian community, anything that opposes wealth inequality sounds suspiciously like higher taxation and a slippery slope to communism. So what do we say instead?
First we ask them what they do for a living. Bill says he sells home insurance. So you ask Bill, how many people get home insurance who can’t afford to buy their own homes? Wouldn’t Bill’s market be much bigger, and his job much easier and more prosperous if more people could afford to buy their own homes? That’s why Bill should be worried about wealth inequality. Gloria owns a restaurant. So you ask Gloria, is it true that people eat at your restaurant because they have disposable incomes? If lots of people are poorer than Gloria, and don’t have any money left over at the end of the week, who will come into Gloria’s restaurant? The very rich can only eat so much. I’m sure Gloria would love it if one of the seven richest Australians came into her restaurant, because one might assume there would be a sizeable tip (although this might be a flawed assumption). But the rich have lots of other restaurants to visit. And the poorest 1.73million can’t afford to even think about visiting any restaurant, let alone Gloria’s. Isn’t Gloria worried that if the number of well off Australians shrinks, and the number of poor Australians grows, her business won’t be able to sustain her aspirational-affluent lifestyle? As I said when I last wrote on this topic, who is going to shop at Walmart if even those people who work at Walmart can’t afford to shop there? See how we’re all better off if we’re all better off?
Think like they do, and speak to them. Otherwise we’ll get Abbott again and the wealth inequality gap will continue to grow. Please help us!