The Polluted Public Square: How Democracy Suffers from Mistrust and Disengagement

Recently and founder Jim Hoggan spoke with Pamela McCall on CFAX 1070 about his upcoming participation in an workshop series put on by The Walrus Talks called The Art of Conversation

Jim has written extensively about what he calls the "Polluted Public Square," a concept he is refining for his upcoming book of that title. Jim's expertise in the world of public relations puts him at a particular advantage when parsing out just how public conversations are used and abused to shape public perception, especially on controversial topics. But more crucially, he sees the way the public is disengaging from the social fora our democratic institutions rely upon. The answer to the question Jim has been seeking – why when we know so much are we doing so little? – has to do with a widespread case of social mistrust that points back to the fundamental problem of the polluted public square.

Jim had the opportunity to delve a little more into his research and how it all ties into the upcoming event The Art of Conversation in his discussion with Pamela McCall. Listen below or scroll down for a transcript of the interview.

Pamela: “You’re focusing specifically on empathy and what you call the polluted public square. That sounds fascinating.”

Jim: “The polluted public square is a book I’ve been writing for the last three years. And I’ve gone around the world talking to social scientists and public intellectuals. I went to Harvard and MIT and Yale and Columbia, I even went to the Himalayas and spent some time with the Dalai Lama talking about public discourse and the environment.

The question I was asking people is why is it, in spite of all of this evidence that we have of human impact on the climate and oceans and the environment around us and the destructive nature of that impact, are we doing so little about what these scientists are ringing the alarm bells about?

I looked at public discourse and public conversations and I’m puzzled that public conversations aren’t more data driven. It’s more about shouting and arguing and I think most people kind of turn away from the public square these days because of that. They look at the people who are involved in these issues, especially environmental issues, and they see people in the end zones and nobody’s near the 50 yard line where there’s any possibility of some kind of solution. And so they turn away. So we have very high levels of disinterest and mistrust in public thinking and in public conversations in Canada today."

Pamela: “Why do the people who are shouting and arguing take precedence over those on the sidelines?”

Jim: “Well they’re engaged. You have civil society, you have government, you have business and they have to protect their interests and they have to move interests forward. In the case of government and business you typically have groups of people trying to preserve the status quo. With civil society you have people who are trying to change it. So people get frustrated, they don’t know how to deal with some of these issues – they’re so tough – and so you have business and industry pumping the public square full of a kind of propaganda pollution, I would call it.

If you look at last year some of the stuff we were hearing about ‘foreign funded radicals’ so people who were opposed to pipelines and tankers on the coast were demonized by government and by the oil and gas industry as foreign funded radicals. We have this ‘ethical oil’ campaign, that is such a goofy idea, that has basically dominated the airwaves over the last couple of years with this idea that "ethical oil" from the oilsands is like fair trade coffee.

And then on the other side of things you have some environmentalists demonizing the oil and gas industry and calling the oilsands heroine or suggesting that people who are working for these companies are environmental criminals. And so when you have these very high levels of rhetoric the public looks at this and says, “geesh, you know, it doesn’t look like there’s much of a solution there!” And they turn away and it’s very serious.

I think that just as you can pollute the natural environment you can pollute public conversations. And public conversations and democracies are something that many people – you know, grandfathers and great great grandfathers – fought to protect. And what was it they were fighting to protect? I think it was in part our ability to be able to solve problems together, to have honest conversations, to be able to disagree constructively, work things out with people you don’t agree with. So when we pollute the public square we’re polluting a good that a lot of people have worked hard to created.

We tend to think the worst environmental problem is climate change or whatever but I think this is a bigger environmental problem – that we’re polluting public discourse to the point that it doesn’t work.

Pamela: “Is it not incumbent upon those on the outside to find the middle ground?”

Jim: “Well I don’t think the there’s a middle ground.”

Pamela: “But is there not room for one?”

Jim: “I think there are solutions. But I don’t think it’s just well you’re a little bit right, you’re a little bit wrong, and so are you a little bit right and I’m a little bit wrong. Some of these things that we’re doing with industry and government are just unsustainable and so they do need to change. So what we need is ways to figure out how we move people forward as opposed to just the constant fighting.

There’s this amazing woman from the United States, a social scientist named Deborah Tannen who wrote a book called The Argument Culture and she said that if you hear a ruckus outside your house you naturally open the window to see what’s going on but if there’s a ruckus outside your house every night you just close the windows and sort of batten down the hatches and you ignore it. Now that is not a good way to run a democracy.

Another way of thinking about it, there’s a guy named Jonathan Haidt who I talked to, a moral psychologist, and he said, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, let me tell you what you should think’ is not a good communication strategy. And the reason it’s not is because we all think we’re right. And so I think when you’re contstantly in the fighting mode things don’t move towards solutions.”

Pamela: “I’m interested in much of what you’re saying and how did you get an audience with the Dalai Lama and what did he say about it?”

Jim: “Well at first they said no. I’m on the board for the Dalai Lama Centre for Peace and Education and so I’ve got a bit of an in, but at first they said no and eventually I persisted and they said yes. And he was very interesting. He said – and I was talking to him about climate change and the impact of climate change in Tibet that he’s very worried about – and he said that – apparently in wikileaks it came out that he said – he’s more worried about the impact of climate change on Tibet than he was about the relationship between Tibet and Beijing. And I was quite surprised about that and so I asked him if he said it and he said yes.

So then I went on to ask him about this problem of how do we find solutions? How do we move forward on these big problems like climate change? I think he said for 39 years he’s been talking to people about compassion, just over and over again the same thing, and he only feels that just now people are starting to listen. I think what he was saying is there’s a need for patience and persistence, and that in Tibet he said they have a saying that goes, “fail once, try again. Fail again? Again try. Nine times fail, nine times try again.”

At the end of the interview we were standing up and he reached over with his finger and touched my forehead. He said “we sometimes think that the Western mind is more sophisticated, but I think the Tibetan heart might be stronger. Maybe if the Tibetan heart, or the Eastern heart, and the Western mind work together we could solve these problems.”

I think there’s something there, that respecting other people, bringing more empathy into public discourse would go a long way to moving us towards the tables that may build the solutions to some very tough problems that we’re facing.”

Pamela: “Jim how do we turn things around when the shouting and the arguing, as you postulate, has usurped reason?”

Jim: “One of the things I’ve learned is that talking to all these people, is that I would be the last person you’d want to be a know-it-all about this. The way that I see them, these are very complicated problems. Peter Senge just said something to me a couple of weeks ago, I was at a course with him and he’s an MIT Business prof, and he said the success of any intervention, the most important determinant of the success of any intervention, is the inner state of the intervener. And I think that’s right.

It’s taking the board out of your own eyeball before you work on the sliver in somebody else’s. I think it starts there. And I think that we bring a lot of baggage to the public square, that self-awareness and a sort of deeper thinking about our own intentions and our own baggage is probably the first step.

And then I think remembering that you could be wrong. The idea is to realize that we all have this tendency to slip into self-righteousness and it’s much easier for us to see the wrong doing in others than in ourselves. Going back to some of those basic lessons that we learned from our Mom and Dad and the church and the synagogue, those are really important human lessons about how to interact with each other.

I don’t think that pointing your finger, pointing in someone’s chest, and then trying to tell them what they should be thinking about – which sounds funny but if you really look at the kind of stuff that you hear people saying, it’s kind of like that – that doesn’t help, I don’t think. We are not going to solve these problems on our own and we’re going to have to work with people and try to figure out how to have more constructive relationships with people, not that we just disagree with, but that we just don’t like. And we need to figure it out.

People like the Dalai Lama have been working it a long time and I think there’s wisdom there, in empathy.”

Pamela: “I find also it underscores the apathy, the kind of research you’re doing. It explains why people will stand on the sidelines and be overwhelmed.”

Jim: “That’s right, but I would caution about thinking about it as apathy because the research shows that people aren’t as apathetic as they are disinterested and mistrustful and believing they can’t make a difference.”

Pamela: “Does that not lead to apathy though?”

Jim: “Well I think apathy means people don’t care. I think people do care, it’s just that they think they can’t do anything and it’s reinforced by what you just said, that the people in the end zones have no intention of trying to compromise, of reaching some kind of arrangement. So they turn away. They know they’re could maybe go and do something but the guy across the street may cancel out whatever they could do. They go and but a Prius and the guy across the street goes and buys a Hummer and if he doesn’t, somebody in Beijing will. So the problems are just so big that when they look around they don’t see any intention on the part of leaders to really do something.”


The Art of Conversation is taking place in Victoria at the Belfry Theatre on September 16th. 

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Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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