The great ABC debate is a case of perfectionism vs. neutrality and Ash Imani argues that the greater position is the one that provides the people the most varied cultural life.
When the recent cuts to the ABC were announced, many of us shook our heads in dismay. We accused Tony Abbott of dishonesty, as though a broken political promise still had the ability to surprise and offend. We rightly bemoaned the job losses that would follow, but few of us were willing to express our wider concern – the slow, but sure deterioration of our cultural landscape.
Putting aside the question of whether its news service has a political bent distasteful to the current government, the ABC (and SBS) are two of the only accessible forms of cultural, artistic and educational programming available in this country.
The idea that governments can legitimately subsidise cultural and artistic endeavours usually finds itself in a stalemate against what Joel Feinberg called the “indignant taxpayer.” The argument usually goes “I don’t need the ABC. Why should my hard earned tax dollars go toward supporting it?”
Public funding of cultural programming has been something of a sticking point in contemporary political theory, as supporters have sought to justify their position in ideological terms.
Justification comes easiest to proponents of what’s known as perfectionism: the idea that the state can rightly allocate its resources based on the judgments it makes about different conceptions of the “good life”. If the state believes that religious belief is “good”, it can legislate religious education into the curriculum. If the state believes that homosexuality is “bad”, it’s authorised to legislate against it. In the same vein, if a state believes that particular art-forms or cultural expressions are conducive to its vision of the “good life”, it can legitimately subsidise them.
This justification is far from satisfying.
On the other hand, proponents of what is known as neutrality have a much harder time stating their case. Neutrality limits the role of the state to providing a neutral framework within which differing conceptions of the “good life” can be pursued. As a consequence, governments shouldn’t apply their resources to promoting certain cultural ideas or expressions over others. Such things should be left to the “cultural marketplace” to determine their value. Underlying this idea is the notion of individual autonomy and self-determination; the freedom to make up our own minds about what’s culturally valuable.
Whilst neutrality provides a bulwark against the tyranny of extreme perfectionism, its supporters are not blind to the wasteland that would be left if the philistines of the cultural marketplace were given free-reign. Let’s be honest, we all want to be free to implement our own version of the “good life”, but we’re shit scared of leaving the fate of our cultural landscape in the hands of adolescent hordes armed with iTunes gift cards.
Therein lies the dilemma. By admitting that a world shaped by the cultural capital of teen pop stars and reality TV junkies is to be avoided at all cost, we inevitably engage in the mortal sin of “elitism”, that sworn enemy of freedom.
Luckily, some political theorists have found a real, albeit convenient, solution to this dilemma.
It goes something like this: if neutrality seeks to promote freedom of choice in the lives we lead, there needs to be sufficient choices available to give our freedom meaning. True freedom requires a rich and vibrant culture with a wide range of options from which to construct our own vision of the “good life”. This is in everyone’s interest, philistines and elitists alike.
If I turn on the TV wanting to learn more about the science of black holes, but the only black holes I encounter are in the hearts of reality TV judges; if I want to immerse myself in the mysteries of metaphysics but the only mystery being discussed is how Kim Kardashian can balance a champagne flute on her buttocks, I’m not really given much choice in terms of the cultural life I wish to lead.
In order to ensure the conditions necessary for true autonomy, the state needs to prop-up choices that are likely to otherwise fade. This mild form of perfectionism is not about promoting certain ideas or art-forms over others, but about ensuring the adequacy of available options. Therein lies the strongest argument against cutting funding to the ABC.
We need media sources like the ABC to remind us that television can be more than voyeurism and exploitation, that music can be more than vacuous lyrics and youth sexualisation, and that news can be more than sensational headlines and empty sound bites.
That might sound like a clever rationalisation of elitism and that might be unavoidable, but what’s the alternative? I’m not willing to sit back and hope for the best while this government hurls us toward the cultural wasteland that lies ahead.
If that’s your only idea of the “good life”, be sure to raise a glass this Christmas to the gutting of the ABC. It’s a step in the right direction and you may have just found a reason to believe in Santa Claus.