Gadfly: An Introduction

“We’re for the compulsory serving of asparagus at breakfast, free corsets for the under-fives, and the abolition of slavery.”
“Many moderate people would support your stance on asparagus, but what about this extremist nonsense about abolishing slavery?”
“Oh, we just threw that one in as a joke. See you next year!”


There are certain arguments that, for whatever reason, are infrequently heard nowadays. Some of these are so because modern science has disproved them: it is rare today, for instance, to hear somebody assert that the Sun orbits the Earth. Other beliefs, such as the inferiority of certain races, have proven to be not only unscientific but capable of causing serious harm. Even the most open-minded among us would likely agree that we save a great deal of unnecessary time and effort by dismissing such viewpoints out of hand.

Some discourses, however, receive limited scrutiny for different reasons. It is not that they contradict basic understandings of physics, chemistry or neuroscience; neither do they contain significant logical

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errors that undermine their credibility. The reason for their lack of representation is simply that they challenge some aspect of the cultural status quo – i.e. not just the way things are, but what lies within the generally accepted boundaries of how things could be – and are, therefore, suppressed. To some extent or other, they become taboo.

Historically, making such arguments in public entailed censorship, imprisonment or death. Although we now live in a society in which political expression is ostensibly unfettered, that repression continues in subtler forms: fear of social ostracism; loss of employment prospects; the timidity of sponsorship-dependent publishers.

The most powerful silencing factor, however, comes from within. We are predisposed to seek out the things that make us comfortable, whether it be the music we listen to, the people we associate ourselves with or the political campaigns we sign up to. We pursue those things that validate our existing biases. As products of our cultural upbringings, those inclinations will necessarily tend towards acceptance of the status quo (and thus, of course, suspicion of dissent).

In many ways, this is an entirely natural human trait; indeed, without the existence of socially enforced behavioural norms, it’s quite possible society wouldn’t be able to function. The drawback, however, is that this tendency can lead to intellectual stagnation. By only seeking confirmation of our own views, we stifle our ability to be reached by rational argumentation. When one looks at that within the context of society as a whole, it is easy to see why political progress – the process by which a society ostensibly becomes a better place for its inhabitants – can be so tortuous.

In response to this phenomenon, Socrates used the gadfly – literally, a variety of stinging insect – as a metaphor for one who needles the establishment. Societies, he stated, needed gadflies in order to disrupt complacency, conservatism and mindless conformity. Through little annoyances and provocations, intellects would stay sharpened and be less likely to act as barriers to social change. That is every bit as true in modern-day Australia as it was in 400 BC Athens.

The purpose of this blog, therefore, is to present a series of arguments that will challenge commonly held positions on various social issues. Some will be more controversial than others, but I respect your ability as rational adults to consider these contentions thoughtfully and critically (and, if you feel like it, to respond accordingly). In return, I hope that you will find my posts compelling, thought-provoking and, most of all, discomforting. After all, what is a gadfly without its sting?

David Heslin


Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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