Whatever happened to the Arab Spring?

Australian politicians are concerned that our ranking in education is slipping.

PISA tests measure aspects of numeracy and literacy.

These are, of course, very important, but there is an other important element that I would like to hear being discussed more often. We need students who can think. And to think, they need to have access to a broad range of views on a matter.

I have just finished reading an excellent book by Platinga, Thompson and Lundberg called An Introduction to Christian Theology. I particularly enjoyed its structure. It covered the primary topics, then relayed a narrative that surveyed the range of viewpoints on Christian theology across history.

It was a survey.

After reading it I gained a broad understanding of the history of thought about theology in the major Christian churches. The authors provided their own editorial comment from time to time. This was clearly marked, making it obvious that they were entering into editorial voice.

There are voices in the Australian media that identify themselves as celebrating diversity or providing a comprehensive coverage.

Yet I rarely find anything approaching a thorough survey.

Consider for a moment the term ‘Arab Spring’. It was a very popular catch-phrase in 2011-12. Revolutions in North Africa were depicted primarily as people’s movements. Oppressive dictators were apparently being overthrown by popular movements with democratic ideals. Now it is obvious that the rebel groups had a wide range of motives. There were also numerous minority groups who were caught in the cross-fire. It is interesting how little the phrase ‘Arab Spring’ is used today. The term suggested a Hegelian inevitability about democracy. If the coverage had looked at the whole picture, the mainstream media wouldn’t have created a easy to digest picture of what was happening. It is undeniable that there were democratic forces: I am saying the picture was far more complex.

I noticed the size of this shift whilst listening to the radio this morning. I heard a BBC perspective on Syria that took the point of view of a citizen who supports the current regime and who described the popular movement as terrorism. What surprised me was not the words of the interviewee, but those of the reporter. Far from this being an ‘Arab Spring’ it was depicted as an opportunity for ideologues to bring their own agendas. The reporter was no longer celebrating people power but was despairing about chaos.

I don’t know all of the motivations for unseating Gaddafi, nor the range of political viewpoints in Egypt or Syria or Tunisia, but I know enough to realise there were a significant range of views. I have heard in local meetings in Sydney representatives from the Christian churches in Syria and Egypt speak and they each provided insights that I have only heard glimpses of on late night religious programs on the ABC. As of about mid 2013 the BBC started telling these stories as part of mainstream reporting, but the references on the ABC mainstream are rare.

Why doesn’t a public broadcaster give time to different views?

I long for the time when simplistic progress metaphors don’t guide the structure of science spots on ABC radio, or when easy catch phrases like ‘Arab Spring’ don’t guide our thinking in political affairs.

I recognise that the ABC does provide access to different voices. My concern is that there is rarely a survey across the full range of views. Either one voice is presented as the commentator or two groups are set up as binary opponents. Shows like Q & A are a grab bag of quips and short points – they are not set up to provide a thorough understanding.

Schools are places that can make a difference. We have more time than the media, and it is our task to provide depth and breadth in reading. If we alert senior students to the range of viewpoints that are on offer in regard to an issue of history or science or language, and if we are transparent about our own presuppositions, then students will have a chance to really be accomplished in developing an understanding of matters that affect their citizenship of this planet.