Alternative Law Journal
JAMES O'LOGHLIN[*] reflects on media opinion-making and legal decision-making.
I was asked recently whether I agreed with the decision of the Family Court to allow a 13-year-old girl to start hormone treatment that would eventually lead to her, if she continued with it, becoming a boy. In reply, I gave the only answer any right-thinking, decent-minded, responsible non-devil-worshipping citizen could. I said I didn't know. ·
All I knew about the case was what I had read in the paper. A couple of hundred words indicating that the court had heard evidence from counsellors, psychologists, the school principal and others who knew the girl. How could I form an opinion worth anything when I didn't know anything more about that evidence or about the girl herself? The only people really qualified to have an informed opinion were those who had been in court for the entire proceedings. And yet the next day there were dozens of people who hadn't been in the court or read the transcript having their say in the paper or on the radio or the telly or in the corridor or on the bus about whether the judge had got it right or not.
The law has developed a simple yet great process for making decisions. You listen to every bit of relevant evidence you can find with an open m1nd, then you go away and think about it and make a decision. And if your reasoning is flawed, an appeal court will pick it up and make you go back and start again.
It's a system we don't use enough outside the law. I am constantly amazed how quickly we try and generate opinions about everything, and of how little knowledge we appear to need to generate them. If you read in the paper about a possible scandal that may have something to do with the Governor-General on the way to work, you better be ready with an opinion as to whether he should resign or not by the time you get there. And you'll also need opinions on whether some swimmer should give up his place 1n the 400 metres at the Olympics to some other swimmer, one on how to sort out Iraq and another on what's really going to happen with housing prices in the next six months. And if you do manage to generate all of those, don't spend too long congratulating yourself because tomorrow you'll need a handful more.
'I don't know' has become a dirty phrase. We seem to have got to the stage where if someone has a lot of opinions people think they must have a lot of knowledge- even though all their opinions may have been formed from less than a thimbleful of the stuff.
I was amazed in the months leading up to the war with Iraq, whenever polls asked whether people were in favour of the war, how few people ticked the 'I don't know' box. It was a complex issue, hard to work out the right questions to ask yourself let alone arrive at answers to them, and yet most people seemed to have had it all worked out within a few days.
There is of course a sense of security and certainty that comes with thinking you have all the answers. If, when asked if you think a 13-year-old girl should be allowed a sex change the first thing that comes into your mind is that no, you think that's a bit too young and you then go with that as your opinion, then you can move on. You don't have to waste any more time thinking about it. But a first impression is only that. It may be right or it may be wrong, and the only way you'll ever find out is to gather more evidence to challenge it.
There's a cartoon that appeared in Mad Magazine years ago of a white American guy walking home through a rough part of town. Behind him followed a black guy. 'I hope that black guy doesn't catch me up', thought the white guy, increasing his pace, then getting more and more scared as the black guy increased his too. The last panel showed the black guy, just as scared, hurrying to catch the white guy thinking, 'I wish that white guy up ahead would slow down. This is a rough part of to n and we could walk home together.' The white guy had had a first impression, leapt to a conclusion, formed an op1nion and got it way wrong.
The law has never trusted first impressions. To convince, a case must be built, and often in the process of it being built a hole is found that would never otherwise have been. In the media we're often guilty of trying too hard to show how clever we are by telling everyone exactly what the truth is. But no one knows the truth. We're all in the dark. Life is a mystery full of thousands of other mysteries, and to avoid the fear that accepting that fact creates, we try and pretend that we have no problem working out what's going on.
I propose 'opinions anonymous', where all those guilty of forming opinions before they know enough have to attend, and at the start of each meeting stand up and say 'Hello my name is James and ... I don't know.'
[*] JAMES O'LOGHLIN is a stand-up comedian, broadcaster and former lawyer.
© 2004 James O'Loghlin