We are drowning in a cacophony of conflicting opinion, aggressively expressed. And it's impossible to make sense of it.
In the UK, a recent controversy is over the proposed plain cigarette packaging. The hypothesis is that replacing attractively branded cigarette packaging with plain packages that carry only health warnings and graphic images of damaged organs would make purchase less attractive, especially for those who have not yet taken up smoking. One would think it possible to have a reasoned debate over an issue that has widespread support. Nobody supports policies that might encourage youngsters to start smoking, and the use of plain packaging may help prevent that. In its submission to the UK government's consultation, the UK Faculty of Public Health stated, "The size of the impact of standardized tobacco packaging on the outcomes identified is unknown, as no administration has yet introduced this policy" while going on to say that, given the harm caused by smoking, the introduction of plain packaging may well be justified in spite of the current lack of hard evidence.
A couple of weeks ago, the government abandoned the introduction of plain packaging and decided to wait until results of the effects of a similar policy recently introduced in Australia become available. Outrage ensued, and a torrent of conflict was unleashed. The government was accused of bending to tobacco industry lobbying. The President of the UK Faculty of Public Health asserted, "By not taking action now, up to 200,000 children and young people will start smoking this year who would otherwise not have done." (Er, what happened to unknown outcomes?) Commentators suddenly started asserting that the evidence in support of a ban is "powerful." (It is not. At best it is suggestive of a potential effect.) The tobacco industry produced its own studies, equally unconvincing, of the increased danger of counterfeiting and loss of millions in tax revenues. In all of this, few are addressing the fundamental, if difficult, question at the heart of democratic decision-making: What is the right balance between commercial interests, freedom of expression, individual liberty, and an effective public health policy? This question has important implications in other areas such as vaccination policy. Instead of reasoned debate, we have outrage, polarization, and calls to arms. Some commentators maintain a more reasoned and balanced view, and their arguments are all the more compelling for that, but they remain the exception rather than the rule.
This incident is representative of many others. Any shred of evidence, however flimsy, is blown up into absolute and incontrovertible proof of one's own position. Both corporations and NGOs generate "independent" studies that support their particular views and use the results to fuel lobbying efforts and to whip up public emotion. Corporations threaten catastrophic levels of business disinvestment and unemployment if their every wish is not met. NGOs and other activist groups underpin their position with threats of epidemics of ill health, catastrophic social breakdown, or planetary meltdown. Neither side is credible.
Increasingly, the rhetoric descends into impugning people’s motives and integrity rather than arguing the case. In the tobacco case, political opponents made hay by suggesting conflict of interest at the heart of government. In a recent but unrelated case involving two eminent economists who published a paper containing an error, some commentators quickly turned from criticism of the error to ad hominem attacks about the authors’ commitment to academic transparency.
Reasonable debate is so often replaced by accusation and hyperbole. Over time, the public reacts with widespread skepticism, increasing cynicism and disregard for any kind of authority, and, eventually, disengagement from public and political life.
In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt writes, “We are so easily divided into hostile groups, each one certain of its righteousness.” Such divisiveness seems to have become the norm. As Isaac Yuen puts it in his contribution to a recent collection of essays, the “root cause is a result of a specific mindset that is cultivated by modern society: We are taught to play the game of life to win.”
While it is understandable that every group will defend its own vested interests, we need to regain the ability to treat those who see the world differently with respect—an essential component of a diverse, pluralistic, and functioning society. We need to re-learn how to approach public debate with a mindset of seeking the best approach among inevitably conflicting interests, all of which have some degree of legitimacy. We need to regain our ability to focus on finding productive ways forward, imperfect though they will inevitably be.
Yuen writes, “Only when we move beyond our desire to win and dominate” will we “begin to envision and create a lasting, prosperous, and hopeful future.” Such an outcome may seem almost incomprehensible in the midst of a US political scene that is possibly more polarized than it has ever been. Organizations such as the International Institute for Environment and Development and others have, for decades, developed, refined, and implemented systems for participative policy development—systems that emphasize dialog, sharing of different perspectives, valuing other people’s views, and engaging with a willingness to refine and change one’s own views. However, implementation of such approaches remains the exception rather than the rule, and this mindset has still to make its way into mainstream public discussion.
But change always starts with the individual. If we can, ourselves, in our everyday dealings, re-learn respectful debate, avoid framing every issue as a polarizing choice between right and wrong, and move on from seeing every interaction and life as a whole as a battle to win at the expense of someone else, then we will start change. This change will effect our neighbors, the organizations for which we work and, eventually, the shape of our public debate.