I'm Right and You're an Idiot book review

I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up by James Hoggan with Grania Litwin, New Society, 248pp, $19.95.

A book called I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up sounds like it was written just for the 2016 US presidential race.

The book is not about the race per se. It doesn’t say anything about Donald Trump and the only Clinton it mentions is Bill. But the book does say a lot about the polarization in American politics that has grown over the last forty years and made this year’s presidential race both incredibly nasty and totally absurd.

Both author James Hoggan, a PR consultant, and his publisher, peak oil stalwart New Society, are Canadian. Yet, the book covers a lot of material from south of the 49th parallel and beyond, presented in the form of summaries of interviews that Hoggan did with experts in politics, communicating and resolving conflict.

Experts include pollster Daniel Yankelovich, political author George Lakoff, Noam Chomsky, and business author Peter Senge, along with Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.

These are all famous smart people who obviously have lots to say about how angry people can get along with each other better in politics.

A Guy with Stories

But perhaps my favorite chapter comes from a peacemaker I hadn’t heard of before.

During a stint with the oil company Shell, Canadian facilitator Adam Kahane learned the art of scenario planning. He then took this brand of practical storytelling on the road as a consultant to help people in more than 50 countries stop yelling at each other and start working together.

Most notably, Kahane worked in South Africa in 1991-1992, at the end of apartheid. Helping to facilitate the Mont Fleur Scenario Exercises, Kahane brought together 25 leaders, both black and white, from across society, to plan out a peaceful and fair future for the county to move forward even in a climate of anger and mistrust.

Love Isn’t All You Need

There, as in all his political work, Kahane applied the insight of Martin Luther King, Jr, about the balance of qualities it takes to make successful social change: love and power.

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic,” King said.

Hoggan gives some background to explain how Kahane uses King’s insight:

Most people associate the word power with oppression and love with romance, but Kahane quotes theologian Paul Tillich who said power is the drive of everything living to realize itself with increasing intensity and extensity, and love is the drive to unify the separated.

I find Kahane’s approach refreshing especially in this presidential year because Kahane reminds us that to get anything done in politics, you have to be able to work with people who you don’t love, who you don’t like, and who you may not even respect.

And yes, here I’m talking to my friends on the left.

Voting for Trump or Not

Because my friends on the right seem to be taking pretty reasonable positions given their beliefs. They’re either planning to:

 

  1. Hold their nose and vote for Trump because party loyalty is more important to them than personality.
  2. Make a protest vote for Gary Johnson, whom I may not personally like, but I can still recognize as one of the most serious third-party candidates in any recent presidential race. The guy’s not just another Don Quixote, but has been elected to serious political office (governor of Arizona). And his running mate, Bill Weld, was governor of Massachusetts.
  3. Hold their nose and vote for Hillary, because putting a sane person in the White House is more important to them than party loyalty.

 

Feeling the Bern and Lifting the Stein

By contrast, too many of my friends on the left still seem to be feeling the Bern so badly that they can’t even follow their leader into supporting the only one of the two candidates with a statistical chance of winning in November who believes in climate science.

So, I hear lots of talk from my lefty friends of a variety of protests that they’re planning for election day:

  1. Don’t vote at all and hope that somebody notices and that noticing makes them care. (Hint: Nobody will notice and nobody will care).
  2. Vote for Trump and try to “break the system.”
  3. Vote for Green Party nominee Jill Stein.

Under Kahane’s framework, I find that these lefty strategies seem unbalanced, either too much for love (#1 an #3) or too much for power (#2).

In particular, voting for Jill Stein seems to be all about love and nothing about power.

Stein has run for lots of public offices but has failed to get elected to anything higher than one of a few dozen citizen seats in the town meeting of Lexington, Massachusetts (population 31,394).

Clearly, this is a candidate with little experience exercising political power. And, even if she could get elected, there’s little reason to assume that Stein would bring any practical experience in working with people she doesn’t like or agree with to the world’s most powerful office.

Solving Our Problems after November

Now, in arguing for my own political position, perhaps I’m going against the intention of Kahane’s work or of Hoggan’s book overall.

So, let me give credit to Hoggan for reminding me that anybody who wants to help make social change in the real world needs to remember that people you disagree with aren’t going away anytime soon.

And as to changing their minds, fuggetaboutit.

Instead, we must recognize that whoever wins in November, America and the world will remain stuck in a variety of huge problems. And that Americans will continue to disagree about how to solve these problems, or whether they’re even problems at all.

Start with climate change, overpopulation and resource overshoot, and then go down through war and the other horsemen of the apocalypse, driven by the various ways that humans express their ego, from racism and sexism to social inequality.

To get unstuck, and work with opponents to solve problems, we can’t wait until we convince them that we’re right and they’re idiots. And we can’t wait until we start to like our opponents better either.

Certainly, the lion will lie down with the lamb before most Bernie supporters will chat amiably with a Tea Partier, NRA member or Pro-Life activist.

Instead, Kahane tells us to start talking with our opponents now, without having to wait to learn either to like them or to understand them.

Telling Stories Together with Opponents to Get Unstuck

As a tool to get unstuck, Kahane recommends the scenario-planning process that helped whites and blacks solve problems together in South Africa. These stories to “create new futures” are not forecasts, predictions or even solutions. They’re just tools to generate new thinking. For example,

In the Mont Fleur process, each scenario was named for a bird. The Ostrich stuck its head in the sand, so problems festered; the Lame Duck represented a new government, but with so many restrictions it never got off the ground; Icarus embodied the idea of elation and freedom, but ignored fiscal constraints and crashed the economy; but the Flamingo symbolized gradual rebuilding and flight as a group.

Kahane does think such a process could help us get unstuck on what Hoggan rightly treats as the biggest issue of all, climate change. But only if those who care about it really balance power and love.

While opening a respectful dialogue with people who care about the economy and consumer choice more than they care about reducing carbon emissions would be a good start, it won’t be enough. That would just be more love without power, which is dangerous, because it produces a kind of bad faith that masquerades as virtue.

Sentimental and anemic, as MLK said.

“It produces perverted outcomes. Be careful of trying to walk on one leg,” says Kahane.

Shaking Hands or Kicking Ass

There’s a time to shake hands, Kahane seems to be saying. But there’s also a time to kick ass.

Climate activists are clearly going to have to kick a lot more ass — of oil, coal and gas companies and the politicians who take their dirty money. A LOT more ass.

But if some other group of climate activists could also talk to their opponents in a new, South-African-style way, they might be surprised by new opportunities to shake hands that they’d never dreamed of.

I like to think of Debbie Dooley and the Green Tea Party in Georgia.

Look at Dooley’s Twitter feed these days, and you’ll see that she’s really into Trump. But she’s also about fighting for solar power against big utilities in the Southeast. Recently, for example, she campaigned in favor of Amendment 4 in Florida, to cut property taxes on solar. The initiative, which was voted into law in late August, had to go up against big utilities like Florida Power and Light, and Dooley pulled no punches criticizing FPL:

I might like the sound of Jill Stein’s progressive-friendly platform better than Debbie Dooley’s stuff about Trump.

But if I’m walking the hallways of Congress or the statehouse lobbying legislators to remove barriers to solar power, then I’d want Debbie Dooley at my side.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice