COMMENT:

This week there was a horrible terror attack in Sri Lanka. So naturally Katie Hopkins had a go at New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Because clearly the rational response to tragedies in faraway countries is to draw wildly tenuous lines between unrelated events in a flimsy attempt to push your own bigoted agenda. As you do.

"Your move @jacindaardern," Hopkins tweeted alongside a video of news footage of the massacre. "I expect you to be dressed as the Pope, ringing church bells across #NZ and praying in Latin in Parliament by noon. 165 dead. 400 wounded (35 from overseas) #SriLanka"

The false equivalence Hopkins employed in her tweet will be evident to anyone with half a brain, but her post is illustrative of a wider trend. While Hopkins may be an extreme example of the unpleasant tactics various radical commentators utilise to weaponise everything and anything that can be co-opted to support their warped worldviews, she's only the tip of the iceberg. From straw man arguments to whataboutism and everything in between, our public discourse has become infested with various logical fallacies. In the year of our lord 2019 – or as I like to call it, the age of hype-rage – it's volume, not veracity, that counts.

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It's no wonder we can no longer have reasonable, measured conversations with each other. We'd rather shout at each other at cross purposes than engage in meaningful discussion. Katie Hopkins would've known that there was no possible reasonable response to her daft tweet, but it didn't matter. She wasn't looking for an exchange of ideas, she was bolstering her brand of division by providing her thousands of followers with further fantastical reasons to feel afraid and outraged.

It's a common tactic on social media. It doesn't matter what you're arguing about, if you can make an interesting-sounding argument – facts and common sense be damned – you can be sure that there'll be someone who'll believe you. The so-called culture wars between progressives and conservatives, or, as they're known by their respective enemies, snowflakes and a***holes are largely fuelled by emotive bluster, crafted for the purpose of reinforcing bias and shutting down transformational debate.

It doesn't just happen when tragedies and major political decisions dominate the news cycle; it happens daily. Whenever I publish anything about, for example, sexual assault statistics is New Zealand, I can be almost certain that someone will respond with "well, what about the women in the Middle East?". Similarly, whenever a feminist issue appears in the news and I don't pass comment on it, it's highly likely that my "silence" on the issue (or, rather, the fact that I have a life and may not have been following the news for a few days) will be called into question.

The false equivalence of Katie Hopkins' tweet after the Sri Lankan bombings is part of a growing trend. Photo / Getty Images
The false equivalence of Katie Hopkins' tweet after the Sri Lankan bombings is part of a growing trend. Photo / Getty Images

Whether it's derailing a conversation about Trump's plummeting approval ratings by shouting "BUT HILLARY'S EMAILS" or responding to comments against Islamophobia with "well, what about Brunei's anti-LGBTQ laws?" the purpose is to distract and deflect. Nuance flies out the window.

In the fight for ideological supremacy the idea that someone could be against both homophobia and Islamophobia, for example, is impossible. By narrowing the available standpoints to force people into a black and white dichotomy, there is only right and wrong, and the many perspectives in between become untenable.

Many of these conversations occur in an environment seemingly bereft of critical thinking skills. Between fake news and wilful misinformation on social media, clickbait and outrage manufacturing in digital media and the fact that human beings are largely emotional creatures, the ingredients for the perfect storm are abundant. We've come to the point where even calls for critical thinking education are smeared as a liberal conspiracy to brainwash the populace.

At the risk of being accused of being one such liberal hellbent on indoctrinating the population, in our current maelstrom of polarisation, I believe that critical thinking skills are more vital than ever before.

There is so much distortion and fabrication in our public discourse that we should be teaching children to question and challenge from a young age, not only to protect them from the risk of radicalisation, but also to give them the skills to evaluate the world around them for what it is, not what various extremist commentators want them to think it is.

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The majority of critical thinking education currently occurs at university level. That needs to be revised. Media literacy, of which critical thinking plays an important part, needs to be implemented much earlier in the curriculum. In this era of hyper connectivity, by the time young people get to university – if they decide or are able to access tertiary education at all – it will likely be too late.

It is only with considered scepticism and meaningful discourse that we'll be able to defuse extremist rhetoric, whether it's espoused by terrorists or controversial commentators. It's time we injected some civility and rationality back into our public debate.

We don't all have to agree with each other, but if we could agree to some basic terms of engagement (for example, that facts are facts and wilful misinformation isn't worthy of further dissemination) it would go some way towards reducing the risks of radicalised division and its tragic consequences.

And who knows? If we could find some common ground for a change, maybe we'd see that we're all just human beings, knocking along as best we can on the same march towards death.