Jim Hoggan’s new book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot is a tonic for our times.
Increasingly, our public debates are dominated by a superabundance of invective. Sometimes it seems that ad hominem attacks have all but completely taken the place of reasoned discourse. This is of course most evident in that part of our communicating world called “social” media – where, all too often, the “communication” is profoundly anti-social. On rare occasions when I have been privileged to participate in the discussion of public issues, I always tell everyone I know to, “please read my essay but for god’s sake don’t read the comments”. There be dragons. But of course, I’m not just talking about Internet trolls: witness, most dramatically, the preferred form of discourse of the presumptive Republican nominee for US President, whose stock in trade is not his mastery of the issues, but his seemingly infinite capacity for personal insult.
Hoggan, a highly regarded public relations consultant, has decades of experience in helping clients navigate the public sphere; he’s also personally contributed to our community through his service and leadership for organizations as diverse as the David Suzuki Foundation and the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education. This book is another - invaluable - contribution to the welfare of our community. As the issues we confront grow steadily more complex, we are going to have to find a way to stop shouting at each other if we have are to have any hope of successfully addressing those issues. Hoggan’s book is a much-needed guidebook for how to repair our public square.
I’m Right and You’re an Idiot is Hoggan’s response to a question once asked of him by David Suzuki, who was having trouble understanding why, faced with overwhelming evidence of human-caused climate change, the public seemed hardly to be paying attention, let alone demanding action. Hoggan decided that the best way to answer that question was to interview a range of experts – people as diversely qualified as Jonathan Haidt, Peter Senge, and Karen Armstrong. The main part of this book is a tour through those conversations, and the various insights of everyone with whom he talked. It’s quite a collection of conversations – too many to summarize fairly here, but it culminates, finally, in Jim’s own insights, in particular, the conclusions he draws in a section entitled “From the Heart”, where the essence of the book is compressed into one marvelous statement by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh: “Speak the truth but not to punish.” Or, to use another term Hoggan offers in his concluding observations, what’s needed is the responsibility to “learn to use speech for its highest purpose – moral discourse.”
For my part, the book’s best passages are those where Hoggan personalizes his own response to what he has learned through dialogue with his interviewees. It’s not easy to distill the essence of the thinking of such scholars as George Lakoff and Marshall Ganz into a report of a single meeting or interview; in many cases, Hoggan’s report of the conversation serves best as an invitation to dig more deeply into those writers’ work. But there’s a continuing, over-arching theme that links his discussions, and Hoggan’s own insights are rich and thought-provoking, in the best sense of that term. The first step in fixing any problem is to understand it. Our task now that Hoggan has so expertly diagnosed our “polluted public square” is to find a way to put his marvelous insights into action.