As the political mainstream has become an ethical hinterland, has our sense of humanity been overcome by moral fakery?
In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary's word of the year was "post-truth." It was a term that had entered common parlance in criticism of the then Candidate Trump's election campaign, as he squirmed his way past the inconveniences of objective fact with promises of a make-believe blue-collar wonderland, built from misinformation, twisted data, and on an audacious number of occasions, utter lies. It may have only been a year since post-truth was crowned the most important new addition to the English language, but even in that short amount of time, its meaning has undergone a radical evolution.
Whereas once it was an unequivocally negative term, used to challenge the disturbing prevalence in the political arena of fantasy dressed up as fact, it has now been appropriated - often invoked by its more colloquial version, "Fake News" - by the very peddlers of falsehoods it was supposed to discourage. A word that was once intended to keep our leaders and their mouthpieces honest has become the perfect smoke-screen for whatever sleazy political pandering offers the most preferable outcome.
And this isn't the only recent instance of words and their meanings being mangled for political purposes. Indeed, it's become the weapon of choice as alt-right sentiments have reasserted themselves in the mainstream consciousness. The notion of "free speech" is perhaps the most dangerously distorted ideal to undergo this right-wing makeover. Enshrined in the democratic bedrock of our Western societies, etched at the top of our constitutions, it is the purest expression of democratic liberty, one that is supposed to protect minorities from being silenced by the status quo.
In the past, such idealism could be dismissed by the right as political correctness gone mad. 4chan message boards and social media trolls would actively provoke "snowflake" lefties by subverting the tolerance encouraged by free speech. Via the most offensive language and imagery possible, graphic slurs, dripping in the eye-watering misogyny of white, patriarchal privilege, were used by the burgeoning far-right movement to goad its opposition, pushing its message to the greatest extremity possible while brazenly displaying a complete and impenetrable immunity to common human empathy.
But this old battle cry is now closer to a siren song. As far-right mentalities have been coaxed out of the shadows and given political legitimacy, the left has been accused of waging war on free speech for protesting ideologies built on discrimination. We are witnessing the advent of a new weapon in the right-wing arsenal, and it's one that has proven surprisingly powerful: mimicking the left.
It's ironic that as bipartisan and centrist politics has weakened, the easily defined yin and yang of the political left and right has become far less discernible. And this is largely because the principles of political correctness have been leeched by right-wing ideology. This has been an especially effective tactic in Australia's SSM debate, as allegedly anxious mothers appearing in No campaign ads have pleaded with Australia to 'think of the children', while anti-equality pundits proclaim in long, loud tones that they are being silenced, their democratic rights trampled by those who dare to criticise them. Free speech has been reinvented as freedom of persecution; bigots brand their challengers bigotted; it is somehow democratic to debate fundamental human rights.
If 2016 was indeed the year of post-truth, 2017 has surely seen the birth of post-hypocrisy.
In its own rank, insidious way, this new approach is a stroke of tactical genius; political correctness, long viewed as right-wing kryptonite, has become, in itself, politically incorrect. But how can such obviously disingenuous BS pass the smell test of a thinking, feeling electorate? Like some cheap Cruise Ship magic show, a flashy production of faux indignation hopes to wow its audience with feigned compassion, while just behind the razzle-dazzle sits the same steaming pile of prejudice. Winding up a deafening Wurlitzer of pearl-clutching outrage, these flourishes of melodrama are akin to the uncanny valley of sincerity; intolerance aping (although not succeeding) at genuine, selfless concern. It's a dangerous illusion.
But hatred isn't innate. No one is born discriminating against people of different genders, races or sexualities. It could, however, be argued that the human condition is hardwired with a sense of basic right and wrong. KKK Klansmen don't wear hoods as a fashion statement - anonymity is the only protection for expressing views that many compassionate people would find repulsive, and that perhaps they too, for all their rage and violence, understand on some level to be morally unacceptable. But as the right has explored the strange new territory of political correctness, it has become increasingly talented at reflecting values intended to protect minorities. And this funhouse mirror has distorted them into an ugly parody.
The moral compass hasn't just been broken; it's been smashed to smithereens. The greatest question this raises is how can beliefs that actively encourage discrimination be challenged when we can no longer brand them as morally wrong? How can we expose the subterfuge of campaigns that muddy simple issues – like whether two consenting adults should be allowed to marry, regardless of gender – when such basic logic is blocked by phony concerns about family and religious freedoms?
One inevitable outcom is a greater polarisation and escalation of political activism. As neo-Nazi's have taken to the streets, Antifa protestors have clashed with them, and these altercations have been used to smear the left as militant. As anti-equality sentiments have been called out by pro-SSM supporters online, these exchanges have proven to be a goldmine for the No campaign, who have placed this heated discourse at the centre of their latest television ad.
The stark truth is that within the tit for tat world of political point scoring, compassion and sincerity are no longer viable vehicles for the left. Our political process is now more vulnerable to emotional manipulation than perhaps it ever has been. But one last line of defence remains, one that has proven to be an insurmountable stronghold for inclusivity, equality, and dignity: intelligence.
The advent of the post-truth age has, albeit not comprehensively, encouraged a greater level of scrutiny of what our politicians say. So, it is up to the electorate to make sharply reasoned accountability and credibility a more important yardstick than melodramatic political theatre. Because if we can no longer campaign with our hearts, we must be led by our heads.
First published 5 October 2017, for The Music.