The gotcha journalist is us

Gotcha! Cries the young journalist with notes on his phone in the palm of his hand, along with every vigilante pleased to have skewered a politician on the sharp end of a pointed question. This is not the first time Albo has been unable to remember facts on the spur of the moment. So he must be an unworthy candidate, unfit for the high office of Prime Minister surely? How can we vote for a person who has trouble remembering facts under pressure? Isn’t coping with pressure a mark of quality leadership?

But then again maybe quality leadership is about more then being able to recall high volumes of information on a wide range of topics under pressure. Maybe he is a worthy candidate and the 20-something journalist has got it wrong.

This “gotcha” journalism, a feature of news conferences during the current election in Australia has revealed an assumption that exists like mycorrhizae in the life of Australia and every other western culture: That we cannot tolerate memory mistakes, that we can only allow people to be leaders, to participate if they can recall high volumes of facts under pressure and that this is what makes a quality leader, that needing others for information we do not have to hand is a weakness.

This is the product of what Prof Stephen G. Post called a “hypercognitive” culture. Memory is overvalued and other human functions under-valued to the extent that people with memory problems, who make mistakes with memory are side-lined, excluded from public discourse and edged out of employment. The under-valued functions include the capacity to work as a member of a team, to know when to call on the knowledge of others and to work with them, the capacity to be able to judge and assess information, to weigh up and determine a course of action based on the evidence. We used to call this teamwork and wisdom and it was prized. Now it appears to be despised.

This is also an ageist cultural assumption. Just as maleness has been accepted as the standard for human function until recent times, performance at age 20 has been accepted as the standard for thinking and memory function and the natural change in memory as we age has become regarded as a sign of a weak mind and a failure.

In addition to the ageist implications of gotcha questioning, there sits the idea that quality leadership is not needing others. The leadership that the young journalist seems to support is that of the solo performer who does not need others but shines by not relying on others, by not needing a team of people around him/her. This is the leader who despises forgetting and needing others as weakness. This is the hero who can slay dragons and stand victorious on the bodies of his/her enemies.

Th hypercognitivism of Stephen Post regards memory limitations as a failure, a sign of mental weakness. There is no place for people with memory limitations in this society. You can belong if you have the memory of a 20-something. You can float to the top if you can recall detailed information. This is you showing you are on top of your brief. You may not know what to do in a crisis or have the values to guide you to make worthy decisions for vulnerable others but you will be regarded as superior because you can recall those facts.

Success is remembering. Failure is forgetting. Needing others and relying on others for skills and knowledge we do not have or who others have more of than us is regarded in this hypercognitive culture as weakness. Success comes from not needing others to succeed. Be independent. Don’t rely on others. This is true strength. A sharp mind is a mark of the truly high functioning person who the young journalist embodies on behalf of us all. The gotcha journalist is us. We recoil from moments of forgetting, shrink from our inability to bring words and facts to mind.

An alternative cultural future for our nation is one in which we change over our lifetimes, in which our abilities are different to those around us and in which we need others in order to shine. In this culture differences and limitations on memory and thinking ability are recognised and valued rather than despised. This is a culture in which a person can draw others with talents together, can foster skills and celebrate knowledge, can give praise and genuine gratitude when others perform well. This person can be part of a community. We can all belong in this culture.

The hero on the other hand has a lonely life on top of the mountain, watchful for enemies, ready to highlight weakness in others. Waiting for the gotcha journalist.