On Metaphor

A guest posting by Laurie Edwards, Principal, Breathlines.org

“I reach for a book like a doubter
and want it to flare round my hand,
a black-letter bush, a glittering shield-wall
cutting as holly and ice”
— Seamus Heany, “Holly,” in New Selected Poems: 1966–1987, Faber and Faber

A man I know, David Nostbakken, a one-time student of Marshall McLuhan, is trying to breathe new life into the MacLuhan Centre (aka The Coach-house Institute) at the University of Toronto. He’s talking to all and sundry about what its mission should be now that the digital age is well and truly upon us.

My question: what is the net doing to language? Never has there been more texting, never such a shrinking of useable vocabulary. When words fall into dis-use, the actualities they call forth withdraw from our experience. Our first task, according to scripture, at least, was naming.

Our longing for meaning, and for reconciliation with loneliness, exile (from Eden, childhood, vigour, and home), and death invests words with the power of not only representing phenomena but generating them. Such transcendence speaks not only to human sorrow but also to the capacity we have for wonder. In the end, all we have is metaphor.

Why isn’t good evidence more effective in solving political debates?

A guest posting by Tim Lash

Canadian political decisions are defying reason more blatantly, more often. This is bad for good citizenship. But there’s hope. Recent developments in social science and neuroscience give insight into the problem, and may help devise solutions.

Item: As a nation we deny the reality of climate change. We’re contributing to human improvidence, despite the evidence.

Item: National and international experts, pro-democracy groups, and the elected representatives of most Canadians have given mindful, critical reviews of the Fair Elections Act bill. The government’s Minister of Democratic Reforms gives no answer to their substance. He just says he’s “comfortable with the objections”, and will change nothing in the bill. It’s “terrific”, he says.

This defiance of reason makes grumps out of people who believe better information and debate will produce agreement. They start out with good, sensible, civic-minded engagement. Rebuffed, their next step can be a bitter bloom of cynical commentary, or a defeatist withdrawal.

For some, gazing into these civic malformations can produce nausea – the moorings for democratic conversation have broken. The ropes don’t hold. The factual ground they were to tie to turns into a moving sea monster. Political gurus Tom Flanagan and Warren Kinsella have practiced it; political philosopher George Lakoff explains it: the aim is not a best answer, or even a practical one – it is to win, by cognitive sleight and strong-arming. Media shape what talk is possible. Party war rooms manufacture public opinion from current events. It’s conquest, not conversation.

In this context, continuing engagement can seem to require self-betrayal – to acquiesce to less factual protocols, debased rhetoric, and diminished grace.

Where to turn? How to encourage public discourse that has room for all, with shared facts and inclusive values?

Social Science

In How Politics makes Us Stupid, Ezra Klein describes experimental research of Yale law professor Dan Kahan. People deal with evidence one way when they’re finding a technical path to a desired result, and another way when answers to the question could threaten their tribe, or their social standing within a tribe.

“Nothing any ordinary member of the public personally believes about the existence, causes, or likely consequences of global warming will affect the risk that climate changes poses to her, or to anyone or anything she cares about. However, if she forms the wrong position on climate change relative to the one [held by] people with whom she has a close affinity – and on whose high regard and support she depends on in myriad ways in her daily life – she could suffer extremely unpleasant consequences, from shunning to the loss of employment.”

Kahan calls his theory Identity-Protective Cognition. “But he’s an optimist,”says Klein. He hopes researchers can develop a model of how people treat questions of science as questions of identity, so scientists can craft communications strategies that avoid those pitfalls. “The conditions that make a person subject to that way of looking at the evidence,” he said slowly, “are things that should be viewed as really terrifying, threatening influences…. That’s what threatens the possibility of having democratic politics enlightened by evidence.”Klein concludes that if politics is going to improve, it will be better structures, not better arguments, that win the day.

Neuroscience and Psychology

In 2011, Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel Economics laureate, popularized his research on behavioural finance in Thinking, Fast and Slow. He describes System 1 of the mind (unconscious, intuitive, biased, fast) versus System 2 (conscious, logical, lazy, slow). They are mapped to different parts of the brain. Through evolution, System 1 is for survival. System 2 takes more work – it only kicks in when it’s consciously required, and time permits.

This year, Joseph Heath, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, has published Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, our Economy, and our Lives. He identifies what activates our fast thinking and inhibits slow thinking:

Rational thought cannot prevail in the current social and media environment, where elections are won by appealing to voters’hearts rather than their minds. The rapid-fire pace of modern politics, the hypnotic repetition of daily news items and even the multitude of visual sources of information all make it difficult for the voice of reason to be heard.

The answer, Heath argues, lies in a new “slow politics.”It is impossible to restore sanity merely by being sane and trying to speak in a reasonable tone of voice…. The only way to restore sanity is by engaging in collective action against the social conditions that have crowded it out.

On 27 April, Heath’s topic at the Ottawa International Writers’ Symposium is “Fast Tracking Slow Politics”.

Let’s hope he identifies positive social and environmental preconditions for a culture of evidence-based political decisions. They’ll be DNA for the political influences and structures we need to evolve.

Ezra Klein, How Politics Makes Us Stupid
Dan Kahan
D.Kahneman, Thinking, Fast & Slow
J. Heath, Enlightenment 2.0
Fast Tracking Slow Politics with Joseph Heath