Possibility: Don’t wrestle with pigs, and other lessons from the ideological battlefield

From The Intelligent Optimist
Summer 2016

This U.S. election season is a perfect backdrop for discussing James Hoggan’s new book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up. Hoggan’s special interests—ethical PR and climate change—merge in this book, a primer on how to clean up and civilize public discourse. The Optimist spoke with Hoggan, president of a Vancouver public relations firm.

Why is it important to “clean up” public discourse? Can’t people see through the hyperbole and polarization that energize much of the debate?

“It’s not a given that if we just leave things to go about the way they do, free speech will ensure that we have democracy, because the forces of manipulation are strong, are powerful and highly misleading. Climate change is probably the sort of quintessential example of how you can have concern about a crisis for which there is overwhelming evidence, but ideological interests and financial interests can distort it to the point where people don’t believe the science—they believe the ideology.”

How do you counter someone with great influence, like Donald Trump, who criticized Obama for wasting time going to Paris for the climate summit and said of the issue, “It’ll get cooler, it’ll get warmer; it’s called weather.”

“Trump is the product of this ideological propaganda factory Republicans have been subjecting other Republicans to over the years. People have been convinced by people who should know better about something that is totally not true. And so you have this unbelievably difficult problem of how you reverse it. You have to have culturally sensitive ways of speaking to Republicans—and it has to be Republicans speaking to other Republicans—about how it is a problem. They’re not going to listen to Al Gore!”

Is it just Republicans who are stuck in an ideological trough?

“I don’t think it’s just the climate-change denial community. There has been a huge failure on the part of scientists to be persuasive, and I think people on the left have made climate change ideological as well. But the fact is, it doesn’t matter whether you’re on the right or the left if you live in the Florida Keys and salt water is washing up into your first floor.”

You ask people to adopt “attitudes of respect, objectivity and fair-mindedness” toward people they disagree with, instead of shouting back, in order to “open space for real conversation.” Is this really possible?

“I like to quote George Bernard Shaw to my clients: ‘Never get in a fight with a pig in public, because the pig likes it; you both get dirty, and after a while people can’t tell the difference.’ Advocacy is a fantastic thing, but if that’s all you do, you can basically just end up in gridlock, where all you’re doing is fighting. And you become more interested in beating the other side than you are in dealing with the issue and moving the issue forward.”

You put Pope Francis in a class with Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King as examples of how you can accomplish what you need to accomplish without being firebrands. What do they have in common?

“What I see here that’s so powerful is the moral narrative. And that is what all three of those people were so powerful with, this deeply moral narrative that was just hard to argue with. With Pope Francis on the urgency of climate change, you would look foolish trying to say that what he’s saying is not the case.” | NARDA ZACCHINO

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Possibility: Don’t wrestle with pigs, and other lessons from the ideological battlefield

From The Intelligent Optimist
Summer 2016

This U.S. election season is a perfect backdrop for discussing James Hoggan’s new book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up. Hoggan’s special interests—ethical PR and climate change—merge in this book, a primer on how to clean up and civilize public discourse. The Optimist spoke with Hoggan, president of a Vancouver public relations firm.

Why is it important to “clean up” public discourse? Can’t people see through the hyperbole and polarization that energize much of the debate?

“It’s not a given that if we just leave things to go about the way they do, free speech will ensure that we have democracy, because the forces of manipulation are strong, are powerful and highly misleading. Climate change is probably the sort of quintessential example of how you can have concern about a crisis for which there is overwhelming evidence, but ideological interests and financial interests can distort it to the point where people don’t believe the science—they believe the ideology.”

How do you counter someone with great influence, like Donald Trump, who criticized Obama for wasting time going to Paris for the climate summit and said of the issue, “It’ll get cooler, it’ll get warmer; it’s called weather.”

“Trump is the product of this ideological propaganda factory Republicans have been subjecting other Republicans to over the years. People have been convinced by people who should know better about something that is totally not true. And so you have this unbelievably difficult problem of how you reverse it. You have to have culturally sensitive ways of speaking to Republicans—and it has to be Republicans speaking to other Republicans—about how it is a problem. They’re not going to listen to Al Gore!”

Is it just Republicans who are stuck in an ideological trough?

“I don’t think it’s just the climate-change denial community. There has been a huge failure on the part of scientists to be persuasive, and I think people on the left have made climate change ideological as well. But the fact is, it doesn’t matter whether you’re on the right or the left if you live in the Florida Keys and salt water is washing up into your first floor.”

You ask people to adopt “attitudes of respect, objectivity and fair-mindedness” toward people they disagree with, instead of shouting back, in order to “open space for real conversation.” Is this really possible?

“I like to quote George Bernard Shaw to my clients: ‘Never get in a fight with a pig in public, because the pig likes it; you both get dirty, and after a while people can’t tell the difference.’ Advocacy is a fantastic thing, but if that’s all you do, you can basically just end up in gridlock, where all you’re doing is fighting. And you become more interested in beating the other side than you are in dealing with the issue and moving the issue forward.”

You put Pope Francis in a class with Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King as examples of how you can accomplish what you need to accomplish without being firebrands. What do they have in common?

“What I see here that’s so powerful is the moral narrative. And that is what all three of those people were so powerful with, this deeply moral narrative that was just hard to argue with. With Pope Francis on the urgency of climate change, you would look foolish trying to say that what he’s saying is not the case.” | NARDA ZACCHINO

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