By Peter Lindfield, published in the Telegraph-Journal 28th September 2012
Are political discussions more dominated by emotions today than in the past? Several issues have polarized the public in recent years. Globally, nationally and locally, an increasing number of issues can be characterized as unmanaged even though leaders present confidence.
Emotions are not easily regulated and made submissive. Emotional arguments are far more difficult to control than discussions that are driven by facts and data.
It is not surprising then that elites prefer intellectual rigour and rational evidence-based public discourse over language infused with emotion and passion.
But public mistrust of leaders has cascaded to a general mistrust of the lexicon of facts and data. And rather than get ahead of the emotion and outrage generated by hot-button issues, the reaction of elites has tended to be defensiveness.
The conventional media has not been helpful. The journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of established truths on one side, has succeeded only in elevating the currency of dubious facts.
This false balance is intended to minimize the impact of emotions and passions in favour of evidence. But the consequence of this distortion of objectivity has been the discrediting of some media accounts of important stories.
The lack of credibility of fact- and evidence-based discourse is partly the consequence of rampant and complex change. While social and political instability creates the conditions for new organizational arrangements, change also tends to reinforce institutional defensiveness.
At a time when building an open architecture for crisis management or avoidance is critical, the perception is that institutions are circling the wagons for self-preservation. The consequence of this perception is even more mistrust of these institutions, whether public or private sector.
In the case of health care, Canadians are most interested in information that provides them with a better understanding of their illness and their personal relationship with their health-care providers. Recent research supports the view that more Canadians will be supportive of an innovation agenda if governments and health-care-provider organizations can demonstrate that technology, or other health-care innovations will empty into the service of personalized medicine.
In the case of health care, the facts may be so distanced from personal health issues as to render them meaningless.
The public mistrust of leaders has implications that span the global level. Many countries now possess enough political and economic power to prevent the international community from taking action, but none has the influence to reshape the status quo.
Though this global alignment presents opportunities for some nations, it also presents a multi-polar order with fewer means to address serious transnational crises.
On issues such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity and the scarcity of food and water, there is an increasing perception that no one is driving the bus and that the language of leaders is empty rhetoric.
The ultimate expression of emotion and passion is outrage. The distinction between risk – which implies a threat to life, health and safety and the environment – and outrage – which implies anger, fear and concern – is neither a distinction between data and emotions nor between data and values. Outrage and its elements are measurable, tangible and very real. In many instances, we have significantly better data on outrage than we have on risk.
Is it realistic to talk about taking the emotion and outrage out of the political equation? Politicians continually encounter emotional reactions to their fact- and evidence-based statements. There is an emerging recognition that we need to engage the public in constructive consensus-building, in part because conversations currently are polarized and mistrustful. The first step in that process is addressing the issue of trust.