James Hoggan is a Canadian public-relations expert who is also known for his commitment to ethics and integrity in PR. He is the chair of the David Suzuki Foundation and founder of DeSmogBlog.com, which works to “expose misinformation campaigns polluting the public debate about climate change and the environment.” He’s also the author of Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming.
In his latest book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up (New Society Publishers, 2016), Hoggan interviews a number of experts—from Noam Chomsky and George Lakoff to Thich Nhat Hahn and the Dalai Lama—on how adversarial rhetoric and polarization is stifling discussion and debate, thwarting society’s ability to solve our collective problems.
Green America talked with Hoggan about his ideas for cleaning up “the pollution of the public square”.
Green American/Tracy Fernandez Rysavy: Our current public dialogue around issues is, as you say, toxic and polarized. Why is this polarization dangerous?
James Hoggan There’s a type of polarization that is healthy. Democracies are built on healthy debate. But when polarization becomes so intense and such an overriding part of public debate that people decide on what’s true and false based on what political party or set of beliefs they come from, collective problems become impossible to solve. It’s almost like people think, “If you believe this, you’re one of us. If you don’t, you’re one of them.”
When name-calling takes the place of argument, you’re trying to shut people up who disagree with you. When you have that type of polarization, democracy is broken. You can’t fix problems, whether it’s income inequality, climate change, gun control, immigration.
Green American/Tracy: You say in the book that “most dialogue is just disguised monologue.” Can you talk a little more about that?
James Hoggan:I say that because I don’t think we’re very good listeners. We don’t practice it much. I was invited to a dialogue that was put on by the Canadian Petroleum Producers. They call them “dialogues”, but they don’t mean they’re willing to change their mind, which is what a dialogue is. They want to be polite, courteous, and then explain to you what is actually happening, based on the idea that you’re getting the facts wrong. For dialogue to take place, you have to be willing to change your mind. You have to start by thinking the other side may be well-intentioned and have a point, and you may actually learn something.
We had a series of dialogues for [oil-and-gas company] Shell with environmental groups across Canada, facilitated by [social scientist Daniel] Yankelovich’s group. They were very interesting. There was a disciplined structure. You can’t make somebody be open-minded, but you can set a structure up where there is more opportunity to listen. These dialogues were an opportunity for people on each side of an issue to present their case or point of view. Then, there were exercises where they had conversations about it with a facilitator facilitating people into listening—and nudging them away from the idea of “defeat opponent” and toward “let’s explore the issue from both sides”.
The part that was most interesting was getting people to understand the difference between debate and dialogue. In debate, the intention is to win, and someone else loses. A dialogue is more a conversation and an exploration. [When people enter a true dialogue], it’s like light bulbs going off around the table on both sides; it’s quite magical.
Green American/Tracy: You say both the left and right are to blame for the toxic state of public conversation. How are we all getting it wrong?
James Hoggan: We find it easier to see someone else’s bias than we are able to see our own. It’s a good thing to remind ourselves when we’re in a debate that more than likely, the people we’re in a debate with have intentions that are good. And you, too, could unknowingly be under the influence of bias. Both the right and the left need an open mind, open heart, open will.
Green American/Tracy: One of the refrains throughout the book is that sometimes, good people do bad things for good reasons. Why is it important to remember this?
James Hoggan: The public square can be polluted just like the natural environment can be polluted. One of the ways we pollute is through something [lobbyist and consensus builder] Roger Conner talked about: the advocacy trap. Let’s say I care deeply enough about something to start a charity or not-for-profit to help—replenishing salmon streams on the coast, for example. Because the media is the way it is, it looks for a way to criticize what I’m doing.
When people criticize in public something you care about, we very quickly move from “They’re wrong” to “They’re up to something.” Before you know it, you think of them as a wrongdoer. You’re in a debate between good and evil, where you’re David and they’re Goliath. It slams the advocacy door shut. You become more interested in defeating the SOB on the other side than saving the salmon. I’m nervous about anyone telling me we should just get along better. There are so many things we should be thanking advocates for! Women wouldn’t have the vote. We’d be back in the dark ages in terms of civil rights. Democracy. It’s naïve to think advocacy is bad. But it’s a double-edged sword.
"In debate, the intention is to win and someone else loses. A dialogue is more a conversation and an exploration."
If we get into this advocacy trap way of thinking, it oversimplifies, so it’s impossible to get to what the other side is thinking about. Sometimes you do need to polarize, but sometimes we need to turn down and tone down the polarization. You’re probably not surrounded by evil people. Changing the way you look at people and assuming they have good intentions and may have a point is a better way.
Green American/Tracy: How can this approach help if the other side isn’t doing it?
James Hoggan: There was this moment for me when David Suzuki and I sat down with [Buddhist monk] Thich Nhat Hahn. He’s a big environmental advocate. He said to David, “We don’t need to keep telling people they’re destroying the planet. We need to deal with the despair.” So I said, “One of your Vietnamese monasteries posted pictures of abusive police officers to protect monks and nuns. That seems like activism. So you’re not saying we shouldn’t be activists?” He has a way of looking at you that is almost like he almost knows more about you than you do, like he’s looking at your soul. It’s an openness that is frightening. He said, “Speak truth, but not to punish.”
Whoa! I thought. What does that mean? For me, the meaning I have drawn out of it is that we should never be afraid to speak up against injustice. But we don’t want to get mixed up in how we do it. Accusing people of bad intentions and offending their sense of sacredness creates resistance.
Green American/Tracy: That’s hard when someone is talking about building a wall on the Mexican border or banning Muslims from the US.
James Hoggan: One of the more dangerous phenomena is what Jonathan Haidt calls groupish righteousness. [Presidential candidate Donald] Trump feeds off of it. If we look closely at the world today, one of the most common emotions is fear. People are afraid of what’s going on economically. There’s a lot of fear—and anger, which is a way of masking fear— around immigration, terrorism, security threats. Fear that some people have of change.
If we think about a lot of Trump’s supporters as being in a state of fear, demagoguery works: “Don’t worry about climate change, it’s a hoax. I’ll protect you and your jobs from these Mexicans. I’ll protect your night clubs from these Muslims.” It’s traditional propaganda. This is not public discourse. The demagogue doesn’t get away with demagoguery. If you don’t speak out, they do get away with it. Speak the truth. But not to punish.
Green American/Tracy: When you interviewed the Dalai Lama, he said: “We must respect all forms of life, with less concern about getting something back.” What do we need to take from this message when it comes from dialoguing with “the other side”?
James Hoggan: Compassion is hard. It is hard. The way I look at it is it’s what’s effective. If you really care about these issues, it makes it easier to let go of the need to defeat somebody and the need to be right—and have them as wrong. Then you can think in a clear way about the right path forward to get things done.
Persistence is important. The Dalai Lama said to me, “We have a saying in Tibet: If you fail, try again. Two times fail, two times try again. Nine times fail, nine times try again.” There’s an incredible power in warmheartedness and compassion and openness.
For more on James Hoggan and his book, visit ImRightAndYoureAnIdiot.com.