The toxic state of public discourse

Having had a break of several weeks from writing these weekly blogs I’ve decided to start the new year with a series of posts in which I sketch out a personal political manifesto. In doing so I must stress that I have no issue with the Green Party manifesto nor their policies, but I do like to think for myself and be as true to these thoughts as I can. This series of posts, therefore, will hopefully explain to anyone who is interested ‘where I’m coming from’. It will also allow me the opportunity to work through various thoughts I’ve had. I find writing a creative process, a process that allows me to organise my thoughts and unearth inconsistencies in them.

Most people, no doubt, will expect our climate and ecological emergency to be my main priority. As important as this issue is, however, I’m fast coming to the conclusion that there is an issue of equal importance – what the author James Hoggan calls “the toxic state of public discourse”. Particularly since the Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the USA, there seems to be not just a growing polarisation of political ‘thought’ but an escalating intolerance, bordering on hatred, of the ‘other side’. Whilst the popular press do not help in this process, the worst culprit by far must be social media. It’s become far too common to resort to hatred and abuse as methods of dismissing what someone has to say rather than rationally explaining why you disagree. Until this changes I think it unlikely that the actions necessary to resolve our climate crisis will be taken. In fact I would go as far as to suggest that the need to resolve the health of our public discourse affects all other area of policy. It will certainly inform my other posts in this series.

Part of the problem is that we are nowhere near as rational as we like to believe. Humans have evolved to make decisions mostly on emotional grounds, in response to fear, hunger or sexual desire for example. Our ability to reason, and in particular the emergence of science, are very recent developments. Most people, most of the time, do not fully understand science and much prefer to go with their ‘gut feeling’, adding a ‘reason’ why they have made a particular decision afterwards. The Brexit ‘debate’, with chants from certain politicians that “we’ve had enough of experts” only endorsed such decision making. When we follow this overly emotional path it becomes far too easy to feel threatened by anyone who disagrees with us and to respond aggressively.

Another dimension to this problem concerns what the sociologist Anthony Giddens calls our ontological security. Each of us has developed a world view: a way of understanding the way we experience the world and our position in it; a way of making sense of what we do on a daily basis; and a way justifying, to ourselves and others, our actions and behaviour. Providing most of our experiences can be explained by this world view we feel secure as a person. However, if something happens that threatens this world view, something like a radically changing climate for example, we feel deeply threatened. Our initial response to such challenges is to find a way from within our world view of explaining them away, thus preventing the emergence of deep feelings of insecurity. Rather than accept the science of climate change, for example, an acceptance that may involve a radical change to how we live, we tell ourselves that the scientists have ulterior motives and that what we are experiencing are just natural fluctuations in climate. Or we find a way to relabel the offending fossil fuel as ‘green coal’ and carry on as normal.

One way to steer our public discourse onto a healthy track would be to accept that there is no absolutely definitive position, answer or solution to any problem or issue. There cannot be, and science, properly understood, does not claim that there is. Scientific theories are working hypotheses, only valid until they fail to make accurate predictions or until the development of another theory that makes more comprehensive predictions. Through the scientific method all claims are peer reviewed and challenged. Socially we need to start developing a similar response to public discourse. If someone challenges our opinion it should be incumbent upon us to listen to those challenges. If we disagree we need to learn to respond politely, to explain why we disagree, and to not insult the other person for having the audacity to disagree with us. And perhaps, more importantly, we need to be prepared to admit that we may have been wrong and change our opinion accordingly.

It would also help if we started to develop a greater understanding of science in general, and of complexity science in particular. Complexity science is the science of complex, dynamic systems. Human bodies, social systems, and our natural environment are all complex systems, but the important thing to realise is that all such systems are always embedded within a larger system, or systems, which they interact with and are dependent upon. This means that everything interacts with the world it inhabits. As this world will always change to some degree the embedded system will also need to change to some degree. Nothing, absolutely nothing, remains the same for ever. Moreover, due to the dynamic nature of such systems, novelty, new phenomena, will emerge at some point. Whilst it is quite natural for the embedded system to resist change (homeostasis) it also vital that if necessary it does change. If it doesn’t it may well collapse.

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