Hanging on the telephone

Excuse me while I have a good old rant. Everyone else is.

There's been a lot of talk lately about junk food.

It's hard to get too down on it - we all like a good slob-out once in a while.

It becomes problematic, however, when there's a constant diet of it, when one form of unhealthy fare begins to dominate.

It is, for instance, increasingly difficult to have lucid conversations about this because - assaulted by the sound-bite, the survey, the focus group, the telephone poll, the online quiz, the referendum, the histrionic rantings of "talkback democracy", and the unmediated outpourings of blogs - our social and intellectual interactions become increasingly free of substance.

Under the influence, and lacking even the merest nods in the direction of empirical evidence, the quality of public debate is in danger of becoming a vitamin deficient, sugar-rich, reflex-addled, acne-pocked, weakling.

We are losing a language that once emerged from "the critical faculties".

If we are on a fast track to becoming a fast food nation then, equally, we are careering headlong into a disposable junk-thought culture.

Everything is multiple choice these days: "yes, no, don't know"; "disagree, agree, strongly agree".

Our ad hoc verbal responses are packaged up and offered as a credible reflection of the state of the nation's psyche; our "considered" position.

"Good evening, Mr Cunliffe.

We are conducting a survey on whether New Zealanders are in favour of taxes or not.

On a scale of one to five, how would you rate [click] . . . Mr Cunliffe? Mr Cunliffe, are you still there?"

It's the ultimate triumph of marketing and its sidekick, public relations.

Once restricted to the flogging of goods, it has colonised the universe of human relations.

It now peddles ideas, opinions and sentiments and offers these rickety imposters as the basis for rational decision-making on matters of enormous social import.

One such survey caught my eye at the weekend.

It was a phone poll of 500, conducted on behalf of Act New Zealand, claiming legitimacy to public policy direction - on the so-called "three-strikes" (and you're inside for 25 years) law, which suggests that 75% of us have given it the big thumbs up. Tosh.

It's a peg on which to hang propaganda.

Advocates of the policy in the US claim violent crime in California has halved since the three-strikes law was introduced 15 years ago.

The last time I looked Act was strenuously protesting against direct comparison with the California model on the basis that the envisaged crime thresholds, much higher here, bore no relation to theirs.

Try communicating the subtleties of this, and the rest of its complexities, over the telephone in 30 seconds flat.

Anybody with any sense, or who cares about the integrity of their views, doesn't bother to answer such polls with their trite multi-choice one or two-word responses - which is probably why we end up with such moronic answers.

There's no law against it.

People can poll till the cows come home, but we should not be fooled into imagining that this is a basis on which to devise or construct law - nor be hoodwinked into accepting baseless extrapolation of the results into a meaningful indication of what people really "think".

The other night someone rang on behalf of a charity, seeking a donation.

I demurred, saying, without thinking and feeling a bit of a heel, that I didn't do donations to telemarketers.

Then I read the news a day or two later and remembered why.

It was the story about the Epilepsy Foundation.

Of the funds they raised through telemarketing, a generous 2.5% went directly to help people with epilepsy.

The rest, a mere 98.5%, went to the foundation.

And that's not a bad metaphor for the credibility of just about every other little piece of information derived from uninvited telephone calls that arrive just as you are putting out dinner, or devoting attention to the kids' homework, or attempting to decipher an article in the Economist describing the damage done to economic theory by the great meltdown.

These polls, with their facile claims to an elevated status, are a distraction.

They might make people feel momentarily important, and feed a growing appetite for trivia, but, prone to exaggeration, erroneous interpretation and wilful distortion, they propel us further and faster along the path to a generalised culture of stupidity.

So there. Thank you for listening. You are free to hang up.

• Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.

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