16-27 Public Discourse

The presidential primaries this year underlined the sorry state of public discourse in the U.S. Name-calling, bullying, shouting and misinformation took center stage along with the candidates,and it makes you wonder if we’ll ever get back to reasoned, polite discourse on important issues during this election cycle. Our guest wondered too, and he researched the topic of toxic public discourse and why it permeates our political and social communications these days. He also provides some suggestions for advocates and candidates to get their points across without resorting to nastiness and acrimony.

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James Hoggan, President, Hoggan & Associates, Vancouver, BC, author of the book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The toxic state of public discourse and how to clean it up.

Links for more info:

I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The sorry state of public discourse

Gary Price: It’s been a long primary season in the U.S. We have the presumptive nominees in place for both parties, but each side has taken some bruising beatings from the candidates and their supporters in the process. What ever happened to thoughtful, reasoned public discussions on major issues in this country? Why are we so nasty to each other in televised debates, on social media and on TV talk shows? Jim Hoggan wanted to find out, so he asked many of the leading thinkers of our age about the topic and compiled their thoughts in his book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The toxic state of public discourse and how to clean it up. Hoggan is the president of the Vancouver, British Columbia P-R firm Hoggan & Associates. He says that today’s rabid partisanship and poisonous rhetoric are the result of an accumulation of anger and frustration over the years…


Jim Hoggan: Just like we can pollute the natural environment, we can pollute public conversations, and the public square may not be as resilient as we think it is. And it’s my sense that over time the mistrust and the disengagement that accumulates from this type of ad hominem style of debate is something that leaves pollution. So, it goes from election to election; it goes from issue to issue. I’m particularly interested in environmental issues, and I see that there it is unbelievable the acrimony and the toxic nature, and it’s from all sides. You know, if you feel like you’re right, it seems to give you permission to say just about damn near anything you want to about the other side.


Price: Hoggan says that Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, wrote a book titled The Argument Culture about how we become so used to the shrieking and naysaying in the public arena that eventually it becomes the “new normal”…


Hoggan: The way she describes it is that if you had a ruckus outside your house at night, you’d open up the windows to find out what was going on, but if there’s a ruckus every night eventually you sort of batten down the windows and try to ignore it. And that is a big problem in a democracy because citizens cannot ignore issues. We need to make decisions about them collectively. So, when it looks, to your average person, that the people who are involved in these issues are kind of suffering from this unbending one-sidedness and there’s never any listening, it defies everything we learned in kindergarten. And it leads to despair rather than understanding, and people just disengage or, worse, it could lead to more hatred.


Price: This idea that “our side must win” is an old one. Hoggan says that humans have divided into “teams” since the dawn of time, and in certain instances it has served us well. However, when it comes to issues that affect us all in the modern world, this refusal to listen to the other side or consider the facts can create misinformation and promote a toxic atmosphere…


Hoggan: If some evidence about climate change comes along and you don’t believe in climate change, you don’t actually change your mind because the new evidence; you basically change the evidence to fit the beliefs of your team. So, that type of social atmosphere is fertile for the kinds of conversations that you hear coming out of the primaries.


Price: When we choose a side and refuse to listen to anyone who doesn’t agree with us, we can end up in an “advocacy trap.” Hoggan says that not only do we think that the other side’s ideas are flawed…but so are the people who hold them…


Hoggan: When you feel strongly about something there’s a psychology to being criticized. When somebody disagrees with you, you maybe at first think that they’re just wrong, but quite quickly, especially if they’re strong in their views as well, that you start to feel that they’re wrong-doers. And then it’s not too far from that to a battle between good and evil, so you’re the good guy and they’re the bad guy; you’re David and they’re Goliath. And it’s a fight, and you know you’re right and you know what you’re saying is right, and they’re disagreeing with what’s right and they’re disagreeing with something that you feel deeply about. And, so, that ends up creating this state that Roger Conner calls the advocacy trap, which you basically get yourself into a situation where you become more interested in defeating and demolishing the other side than you are in actually moving you issue forward.


Price: Another attitude that stands in the way of productive debate is the inability to admit that your side is wrong or even that the other side might have a point. Hoggan says that this can result in behavior that noted linguist and cognitive scientist, Noam Chomsky describes in the book: “If you can’t answer an argument, shriek…Just rant. Call people names. Slander them. Anything to undermine an argument you can’t respond to.” It’s an impasse that won’t be breached until each side realizes that being wrong isn’t the end of the world…


Hoggan: Being wrong is not a flaw; we’re all wrong! Every one of us is wrong at least a few times a day, so it’s not like it’s something that unusual. We should all be able to relate to it, and the fact that you have somebody who’s a highly public figure admitting it in public: that’s a great thing! I think it shows character. This idea that keeping in mind that you could be unknowingly under the influence of bias is a way to open your mind, and I think it’s interesting, when you pay attention to this, how it actually improves your communications because it improves your listening, which is real communication. People are much more open and receptive to someone they feel is listening than to someone they feel is not listening or has no interest in what they think.


Price: In addition to being able to listen and admit when they’re wrong, Hoggan says that there are other strategies groups and individuals can use to raise the level of debate, such as holding your beliefs lightly, and walking a mile in the other side’s shoes…


Hoggan: I think something just as simple as assuming people who disagree with you are well-intentioned and not idiots – maybe until they prove otherwise, but at least starting with that assumption – and then also looking for what unites us rather than what divides us. Go spend some time with somebody whose ideology you don’t particularly agree with and that you spend very little time with, and try to really understand where they’re coming from. Try to understand their concerns. You know, I do that; I sit on a board, which is one of the most influential environmental groups in Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation – I’m the chair actually – and we have conservatives on our board and it’s very interesting. I find it fascinating. It adds a kind of a richness and diversity to the conversation that not everybody is just there with view from the left.


Price: He says that people who advocate for issues in the public forum should also hone their storytelling skills, because there’s no stronger way to get your point across…


Hoggan: If you don’t tell your story very well, somebody else is going to come along and tell it for you and it may not be very good. So, you end up with this situation where you have, in the world of environment, the people who actually have the evidence often are not great communicators, scientists who have an approach that is aimed at just sharing the evidence and being objective when you basically have this belief that all you have to do is explain what’s going on and explain the evidence and how it’s reliable and so on. That misunderstanding about the power of reason and communication leads to a lot of opportunity for mischief-makers who would rather people didn’t understand what’s going on. So, I think learning these skills of narrative are really important.


Price: Finally, Hoggan says that showing respect for those who hold a different view on an issue and not treating them as the enemy can go a long way towards mutual understanding and maybe even sway some opinions…


Hoggan: David Suzuki and I spent an afternoon with Thich Nhat Hanh, who’s a Zen Buddhist monk, and we were talking to him about advocacy and he was talking about the need for bringing meditation into the world of environmental advocacy. And I said to him, “You’re not saying that we shouldn’t be advocates and speak up on behalf of the environment, are you?” and he had this way of kind of looking into your soul; he looked at me and he said, “Speak the truth, but not to punish.” Now that is probably like the most important lesson of the book.


Price: James Hoggan has more ideas on why our public discourse has become so toxic and how we can clean it up in his book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot available now from New Society Publishers. He invites listeners to visit his website at I’m Right and You’re an Idiot.com to find out more about him and to read his blog. For more about all of our guests, log on to our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.





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