”You don’t know Australia. Australia was invented for you by the news.’’ Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists, speaking in Brisbane.

 

How many people do you know who can laugh about a death threat?

Alain de Botton, philosopher and author of Religion for Atheists, told a Brisbane audience he received his first death threat after criticizing the city’s architecture.

What?

A world-renown writer and intellectual comes to Brisbane and questions the urban planning and someone threatens his life? Do Queenslanders take their architecture too seriously or themselves?

Or is that what’s really happening? Since de Botton was here, the newspaper headlines have focused on his comments about Brisbane and ignored what he had to say about life, the world, or his latest book The News: A User’s Manual.

Is this really what people want to take away from de Botton’s visit?

De Botton, who was born in Switzerland and lives in England, offers The News as a handbook to navigating the information blitz of the 21st century. It’s a provocative look at how the news works, or rather doesn’t: how we’re given no guidance on interpreting the news; how the news fails to illicit empathy and engage the public; how there is a huge gap between genuine issues and what sells in the media; how the news constantly reminds us of our own death, yet gives little in our search for meaning or perspective.
The news ”is terrifying us on a regular basis,’’ de Botton told an audience at the Queensland University of Technology on Friday night. It ”generates emotions that it doesn’t help us to sort through.’’
Think of the reports on missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. How do they make you feel?As a journalist, I found de Botton’s thesis refreshing. I left financial news partly because it was so negative. Even when there were uplifting corporate stories, editors were more interested in who got fired or how investment bankers blew their annual bonuses.
So after a witty and thought-provoking evening with Alain de Botton discussing how the news affects us and how it could be better, this is the headline printed in one Australian paper:
”Philosopher and author Alain de Botton backtracks on bagging Brisbane as ugly city.’’
All the Queensland newspaper headlines I found focussed on this topic. We had access to this unique thinker who’s challenging us to look at the world differently, who was the first Writer-in-Residence at London Heathrow Airport and this is all Brisbane broadsheets can come up with? Are people here really that insecure?
Why didn’t de Botton’s comments open a debate on urban planning as he hinted?Why did the newspapers turn de Botton’s comments into a ”Him vs. Us’’ battle?Why weren’t there any contemplative pieces when so many Queenslanders I’ve met have complained about the ”midnight demolitions’’ of historic buildings by the state premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the 1970s and 1980s?

Doesn’t anyone want to prove de Botton right and show the media that we’re more intelligent than it gives us credit for?

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Even if the newspapers won’t learn from de Botton, I will. I’ve be listening to the radio news with philosophical ears and asking myself how can I apply this knowledge to these essays on The Belonging Blog.
I think I’m on the right track. Belonging is something every human searches for in some way. I hope I’m raising questions that start conversations. That make people think more about who they are and who they would like to be, about their connection with nature or history or indigenous people, or about why they don’t know the name of their neighbour or the man who delivers packages to their home.
Belonging is the way the news should be: not black and white but made up of the million distinct colours the human eye can see in a rainbow.And what we see is only a tiny fraction of the information encoded in the light of the universe.If you’d like to hear part of Alain de Botton’s comments and compare it with an accompanying article, try this.