De-tox for public discourse

By Amy Reiswig, July 2016

James Hoggan’s new book makes us look at our own communication practices, including our critical thinking, compassion and integrity.

James HogganWHEN I WAS YOUNG, trolls were merely fearsome fictions hidden beneath bridges. Today they lurk under virtually every online news story, find their way into Twitter feeds and Facebook conversations, heaving insulting and ignorant comments, even rape and death threats into people’s personal space. They are no longer hiding, and the narrative world they inhabit is not safely contained by the covers of a book but is the story of our own daily lives. 

Internet trolls are just one manifestation of what PR guru James Hoggan identifies as a much bigger problem: the increasing pollution of the public square. In his new book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up (With Grania Litwin, New Society 2016), Hoggan shines light into the dark places of contemporary communication, exploring what he calls “one of the most urgent and unexamined human relations problems of our time.” Ad hominem attacks, polarized and polarizing rhetoric, verbal shoving matches, misinformation and propaganda are not just nuisances, he argues; they are the noise that distracts us and allows us to waste time wounding each other rather than working together on slaying the real demons we all face. As Hoggan writes, “toxic conversations stall our ability to think collectively and solve the many dangerous problems that are stalking everyone on Earth.” 

Initially, Hoggan began his project looking at the toxic discourse impeding our ability to move forward on climate change. President of the Vancouver PR firm Hoggan and Associates, an operation he started in the basement three decades ago while completing his law degree in Victoria, Hoggan is also chair of the David Suzuki Foundation board, author of Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, and co-founder of the influential DeSmogBlog—a website dedicated to clearing the air of spin around climate science. He’s known Suzuki from back when the foundation was just being formed. “At that time,” Hoggan laughs during our phone interview, “it wasn’t cool for a businessman to be associated with David Suzuki.”

Self-described as more right of centre than left, Hoggan got more and more interested, read voraciously on climate science and became convinced, as he tells me, that “you can’t argue with the reality of these problems.” Essentially, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum, we all live in the same environment, on the same planet. Invited to sit on the foundation’s board in 2003, Hoggan recounts how after a board meeting in Montreal, Suzuki asked him: “Why aren’t people paying more attention? There is enough evidence we are destroying the planet…How do we motivate the public to demand action?” That question was the first seed from which I’m Right grew.

But Hoggan’s direction for a book aimed at understanding apathy in the face of facts was subtly changed when another seed was planted, this time under the Indian sun in far-off Dharamshala during an interview with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Yes, the environment was of topmost importance, the Dalai Lama told Hoggan, but he also said: “I think you acknowledge sometimes the Western brain looks more sophisticated, but in Tibet we operate from the heart and this is very strong. So combine these two…and then we will have real success.” The project then became, Hoggan explains, to write “a different kind of book,” one that wasn’t just about how to turn down the noise but how to tune into and educate the heart.

The book is therefore not what you expect—at least not what I expected. Based on the title, I came to it thinking: “Yeah, why are all those aggressive, manipulative jerks out there being such aggressive, manipulative jerks? Let’s take ‘em down!” I imagined I’d have my outrage and indignation mirrored and see perpetrators satisfyingly shamed. On the contrary. While Hoggan does offer concrete examples and case studies of bad behaviour, I’m Right ultimately makes you look at your own communication practice, your participation in the public square, and calls you higher in terms of self-awareness, critical thinking, compassion and integrity. “Democracy doesn’t work on its own,” Hoggan tells me. “It’s not too late to change your own role in it.”

To that end—helping us understand our role in shaping what goes on in the public square and demanding change within it—Hoggan interviews more than 20 of the world’s heavyweight thinkers: philosophers, professors, authors, facilitators, social and cognitive scientists. Just as scientists from many disciplines study pollution in our physical environment, these multidisciplinary experts delve into what underlies the polluted discursive environment in terms of human patterns of thought, action and reaction. Some names will be familiar, like Noam Chomsky, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh or Joel Bakan, the writer and filmmaker behind The Corporation. Others might be lesser known locally but have incredible knowledge and wide-ranging experience on the global stage. 

“The reason it went that way,” Hoggan explains from his home office in Vancouver, “is because [the problem] is so complex. Who sits around thinking about the nature of public discourse?” He admits that we all kind of do in that we see it, whether in the rise of cyberbullying; in the divisive, racist and misogynist rhetoric of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign; when Enbridge conveniently deleted multiple islands from their map of the Douglas Channel (in order to make their tanker route appear less challenging); or when news outlets, including Victoria’s Times Colonist, shut down their online comments sections to dam the flood of verbal violence. The toxicity surrounds us, often draws us in, and we rarely have the time to cogitate deeply upon just what exactly is happening, why, and how to respond constructively. But Hoggan’s interviewees bring a diversity of perspectives and approaches to what is, at base, the subject of I’m Right—namely, Hoggan writes, “how we tell stories and how we treat each other.” 

The first half of the book describes and analyzes the polluted public square while the second half explores solutions and also issues some powerful challenges to change our behaviour, like Thich Nhat Hanh’s seemingly simple statement: “Speak the truth but not to punish.” While Hoggan’s book clearly has a sense of moral imperative, it’s humbling rather than preachy. In the same way that non-violent civil rights protests helped reveal status quo ugliness for what it was, Hoggan believes that civil dialogue can do the same and slowly replace acrimonious debate if we treat each other with more empathy and, above all, more curiosity rather than knee-jerk judgment.

“That’s what is hopeful,” Hoggan says passionately, explaining how if people pay attention they can do more than just resist the new norms; they can change them. “As systems problems go—energy, financial, banking—one system that we can have influence over is social systems.” Despite the efforts of vested interests like government and industry to control the narrative, he says, “Public narrative needs to be community-developed not injected. We need public spaces.” Hoggan’s book can help us step in confidently, compassionately, unafraid. 

Writer and musician Amy Reiswig works by day (and sometimes into the night) as an editor for the provincial government.