In July, Climate Access’ Amy Huva had the opportunity to interview James Hoggan, founder of DeSmog Blog and the author of the new book on climate communications: I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The toxic state of public discourse and how to clean it up.
Below is a condensed version of their conversation.
Amy Huva: Thank you for taking the time to speak with Climate Access, Jim.
James Hoggan: Thank you.
AH: One of the key themes in your book is the need to rebuild trust in institutions. Where do you think we could see that happen first?
JH: I think that is the toughest thing. In a way I think it probably starts with people who represent institutions, starting to have conversations with their community that really have more to do with community concerns than with the kinds of public relations that I write about in the book that are so toxic to the quality of public discourse.
I think that that’s kind of the central question - I also think we need to become much better at developing a habit of assuming that people who disagree with us are not wrongdoers. Or thinking about them as having good intentions. Because I think that’s where one of the problems in the book – the polarization problem starts.
We have a tendency to assume that people who disagree with us aren’t just wrong, but are wrongdoers and that sets up a dynamic that leads to a polarized gridlock and the kind of thing we look at today, when people approach them and assume that others on the other side of the issue are wrong doers or evil, that’s when the trouble starts. So I think that assuming that people who disagree with you are well intentioned, is a good first step.
AH: Do you think that it will start from a community level? Or do you think that there will be institutions that will be able to step out of the fray? Because you mention in your book several institutions that no longer really hold the public trust: politicians no longer hold public trust, journalists to an extent no longer hold public trust, because there’s so many different voices creating this cacophony of meanness. Do you think there are going to be institutions that are able to step up and step forward in that way?
JH: I think change is more likely to happen locally, but I think change is also more likely to happen individually. So rather than trying to change everyone and change other people, we’re basically looking for ways to change our personal lore. Just like you can pollute the natural environment, you can pollute public conversations, and propaganda is the source of the pollution.
I think another part of the problem is what we might call narrative failure, which comes from a fellow I interviewed named Roger Connor, called the advocacy trap. Which is where you become a polarizing force in public discourse just because of the way you deal with people who disagree with you.
So you can be an advocate who has all the evidence on their side, and just because of the self righteousness and attitude you have towards people who seem to be resisting change in your mind, you can be polluting public discourse as much as the person who is pumping out propaganda.
So these kinds of forces all contribute to public confusion and kind of a toxic state of public discourse and what that does and the reason it’s a problem is that it creates despair where and people tend to turn away from public discourse.
The academic Deborah Cannon had a great way of putting it – when you hear a racket outside your house, you open up the window to see what’s going on, but if there’s a commotion all the time, what you do is close the shutters.
The problem with today is when your average person who doesn’t have a lot of time to become an expert on climate change looks to leaders, what they see is this constant antagonistic, warlike approach to disagreement. That there’s no interest in the common ground – it’s all about fighting and defeating people who disagree with you and when people look at that, they just become discouraged and they turn off public participation and what that means, is it makes change very difficult.
AH: You mention that there’s an idea that we should be looking for bias and we should be stepping away from facts and talking about matters of concern, but is there a risk there that we could escalate that continued kind of ‘gotcha’ hypocrisy style of communication? Because we already see that with climate deniers who are trying to shut down the debate; Anthony Watts goes to try and find the addresses of climate scientists to show if they have solar panels on their roofs – do you think there’s a risk that kind of argumentation could increase?
JH: My sense is that people like that need to be called out, and if that calling out dominates the narrative then you loose. It reinforces the noise factor. And what you actually need is a clear path forward that shows a courageous hopeful pathway forward. People need to believe that the change is possible in their own sense of efficacy or in the intentions they see in people working to bring about the change. That’s the problem more than climate change deniers. They need to be called out, but if you’re getting preoccupied with the fight, you may end up helping them.
AH: When you were talking about Marshall Ganz’s recommendation to not shy away from controversy, and balancing that with the other recommendations to create more space for dialogue based on trust, I imagine these are roles best played by different organizations? So I imagine there would be advocacy groups creating the controversy, to force the question and then that creates the space for other groups to come in with solutions that look more moderate and reasonable and they can be that trusted voice. Is that what you’re envisioning as well?
JH: Yes. But I also think that even people who are the strong voices of advocacy- they need to realize in their own hearts that you need to be good a polarizing but you also need to know when to ease off on the polarizing and start to look for common ground.
Even among people who are advocates, you need to have your fingers on the volume so that you can turn it down as well as turning it up. We need to be able to moderate our own attitudes and feelings and the fact of the matter is we could be wrong about certain things. One of the things you see in the reaction of the right wing to people who they perceive as on the left is that people don’t like being told what to think, they don’t like being told what to do and they don’t like to be excluded in the decision or when their views are dismissed of the views of poorly educated old white people. We need to be able to move to the middle ground where we can have conversations that go two ways with people we don’t like or agree with, because otherwise we won’t solve these problems. We can’t solve them on our own.
AH: I think everyone has a personal experience with that, there’s always that one guy at a party who wants to shout at you about the things you’re doing wrong, and even if he’s right, no one wants to actually spend any time with them. I think people can really relate to that and hopefully understand it as well.
JH: It’s becoming familiar with fair-mindedness. We all need to keep in mind that we could be unknowingly under the influence of bias. It can happen to any of us. Trying to explore that makes us more believable – it goes back to what you were talking about earlier in the interview. When we have these high levels of polarization and very high levels of public mistrust where people don’t trust government, they don’t trust industry, and they wonder about each other – they’re suspicious about advocates, there’s suspicion and distrust aimed in all directions, how you penetrate that is a very interesting question, but part of the answer is if people actually think that you are open minded, they will be more likely to be open to what ever it is you have to say. You can sense a person whose heart and mind are open. You know that kind of person. So that’s what I’m talking about. That’s the opposite of I’m right and you’re an idiot.
AH: There really seems to be this idea of the ‘rational man’ that is left over from the Enlightenment and there’s this cultural belief that we go ‘fact, fact, fact, opinion’. Whereas in reality we often have emotional gut responses to something. Do you think that people will be more open to other opinions if they can accept that we reach conclusions mostly from our gut responses?
JH: It’s not that facts aren’t important, it’s that when you and I have an argument about facts it’s not that one of us is being rational and the other is being emotional. Emotions are often very very intelligent and sometimes far more intelligent than reason. Emotions can take into account a lot of information and experience and knowledge that experience and reason can’t keep up with. There are experiences even in my 30 years in crisis communication, where I can give someone an answer to a question I’ve seen many times very quickly, but if someone asked me to prove it, it would take weeks, but having an intuitive sense of it, based on experience, that’s not irrational or uninformed, it’s quite the opposite.
People who believe they have the facts on their side and that the people who disagree with them are just emotional or ignoring the facts, that may be true sometimes, but often times it’s not true – we have a tendency with the way our mind works with cultural cognition, we have a tendency of self justification to find ways to justify what it is we’ve done. We have very clever ways of not only fooling other people, but fooling ourselves and coming up with our own set of facts. So if it’s all about the facts, that’s not going to win, because you think your facts are more well constructed than my facts but I think mine are. And it may be partly driven by reason, but also by our cultural affiliations.
So to just argue about facts doesn’t get you anywhere. There’s something else that needs to happen where people feel like they’re being acknowledged. That you’re actually open to their views rather than fighting. I don’t think it’s necessary to get things done to always have to be right. So often what you see in these battles between deniers and advocates is this incredible imperialism at work – this real need to not just be right on the kind of policy, but we want them to admit they were dead wrong as well. And that’s not going to happen. So that’s a good thing to let go of.
AH: Your book has a very wide range of experts and recommendations, and to me, I felt the take away message from the book was: It’s complex, tactics depend on the context, and you have to find common ground before you can imagine a different future. Would you agree? What do you want your take home message to be?
JH: Yes. I mean I do think in a way Dan Kahan is right at the center of the solution with his whole narrative around power and love. I think you have to be very careful – common ground is really good, but I also think the struggle over power is very important as well. And so it’s a balance so I think you have to have a sense of both and develop a skill set in both. So I don’t advocate for one or the other.
It’s interesting, when I interviewed Joan Halifax – there was a whole chapter in there on her that I had to take out, so she’s just mentioned in the book, but one of the things she said when I interviewed her is what Bill McKibben was saying is not the solution. And he’d just written the piece in Rolling Stone about Shell being the enemy, and she said ‘that’s not going to solve this, but thank god for Bill McKibben’ and so I don’t think that’s a contradictory observation- it’s just an acknowledgement of the complexity that industry needs to be held to account that what Joel Bakan says about corporations being psychopathic is true and the war on regulation that we’ve experienced since the Regan era, the war on tax. Those are terribly destructive social courses that need to be countered in many ways. But you also need to, when the time is right be able to find common ground. So I think it’s both. People need to be held accountable and we need strong and vocal advocacy and we also need, when people are ready the ability to sit down and work things out and be open minded.
James Hoggan’s book: I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The toxic state of public discourse and how to clean it up is available now.
top image via (cc) flickr user Steve Baker