The following is a post I wrote much earlier in the week, but I’d decided not to publish it because I felt.. oh I don’t know, like I didn’t want to get involved in the madness of the referendum. And then that poor politician, Jo Cox, was shot and stabbed yesterday by someone who – so it looks at present – was completely carried away by an opposing political conviction. And so I’m posting after all, because we really do need a sea change in how we stage public debates.
It’s bad enough that we have to live in a world full of gun crime and futile EU referendums, what’s really depressing me at the moment is the quality of debate surrounding them. I am continually horrified by the sheer awfulness of the example being set by people – politicians, the media – who are supposed to be in authority. You might think that the importance of the issues at stake would encourage those doing the debating to put their best brain in gear. But no. If there is some information to be had out there, it’s usually drowned out by the hysteria and the posturing.
I’m not about to tell anyone what to think. But I am going to ask you to consider for a moment how we think. How we might be brought to the best, most sensible and viable decision.
And here’s my first point: if we’re having a public debate, it’s because we need to make a community decision. Not a decision based on what I want, what I think, but a decision based on what’s best for a disparate group of people. A healthy community seeks difference – everyone thinking and acting the same all the time is called a cult. So people are being asked to do a really difficult but necessary thing. We all need to think outside our own personal concerns. We have to think about the young person we love the most, who is most different to us in terms of desires, interests and beliefs, and figure out how to keep society fair, safe and open as far as we can see into the future for both of us. That would be a really good outcome to our thinking processes.
Which makes the personalised and emotive nature of all current public debates a disaster from the outset. The more emotional a debate becomes, the more entrenched people become in their sense of what’s right. Because the sense of being right is an emotion. It’s a wonderful emotion. All that horrible feeling of uncertainty that existence brings, all the nagging fear and low self-esteem are wiped away in a great wave of pure conviction. The more others try to wrestle it away from us, the more tenaciously we hang onto it. This makes it almost impossible for people to hear opposing points of view – literally, we can’t even hear them.
You may have come across the term ‘cognitive dissonance’, which was coined by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1959. It refers to the extreme psychological discomfort we feel when we hold two contradictory beliefs, ideas or values at the same time. This is such a painful position that we pretty much do everything we can – any old trumped-up (and I use the term advisedly) rationalisation will do the trick – in order to resolve the conflict. In fact the brain anticipates such awkward situations and heads them off at the pass using the strategy known as ‘confirmation bias’. We block all information that contradicts what we think and listen only to information that confirms us in our views.
But this makes for terrible decisions. We stop learning. We actually stop thinking altogether and just move into a defensive state. All to protect that gorgeous, delirious emotion of being right. Because in all honesty, we’re hardly ever ‘right’ in the accurate sense of the word. Most of the time, in most of our speculations, beliefs, choices and analyses, we’re only partially right at best, because life is a complex thing and we will insist on being right even in matters that have no factual basis. And let’s face it, even science, that great foundation of factual certainty, is constantly revising, updating and surpassing its knowledge. We have lots of convictions and fantasies based on hopes and fears and best estimates, but we ‘know’ very little indeed.
So! How do we make good decisions when we finally get our heads around the reality of our patchy and uncertain knowledge? How can we do the right thing, rather than the narcissistically-right thing? I have six guidelines (media, politicians take note) for creating a good and helpful debate:
1. The only arguments that carry real weight are those backed up by evidence. We need evidence.
2. Not all opinions are equal. In making a good decision we need reliable information, and that comes only from the most reputable, most unbiased, most experienced sources.
3. Speculation is not an argument. (This is the one I have trouble with Mr Litlove over.) Oh there will be speculations, for sure, but we must take them with a pinch of salt. I’m on fairly safe ground when I say that no one has yet figured out how to foresee the future.
4. There is the problem, and there’s how we feel about it. The chances are these two separate things are going to be continually entangled. But how we feel about the problem is probably going to be completely unhelpful when it comes to finding a solution. We need help to hold them apart.
5. Conclusions are what we end up with, not the place where we begin.
6. Doubt is sanity and absolute conviction is madness. Reality is always going to be more complex, dynamic and unguessable than any of us can imagine. Keep doubting.