The article you just read was brought to you by a few thousand dedicated readers. Will you join them?

Thanks for coming by The Tyee and reading one of many original articles we’ll post today. Our team works hard to publish in-depth stories on topics that matter on a daily basis. Our motto is: No junk. Just good journalism.

Just as we care about the quality of our reporting, we care about making our stories accessible to all who want to read them and provide a pleasant reading experience. No intrusive ads to distract you. No paywall locking you out of an article you want to read. No clickbait to trick you into reading a sensational article.

There’s a reason why our site is unique and why we don’t have to rely on those tactics — our Tyee Builders program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip in a bit of money each month (or one-time) to our editorial budget. This amazing program allows us to pay our writers fairly, keep our focus on quality over quantity of articles, and provide a pleasant reading experience for those who visit our site.

In the past year, we’ve been able to double our staff team and boost our reporting. We invest all of the revenue we receive into producing more and better journalism. We want to keep growing, but we need your support to do it.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
Canada needs more independent media. And independent media needs you.

Did you know that most news organizations in Canada are owned by just a handful of companies? And that these companies have been shutting down newsrooms and laying off reporters continually over the past few decades?

Fact-based, credible journalism is essential to our democracy. Unlike many other newsrooms across the country, The Tyee’s independent newsroom is stable and growing.

How are we able to do this? The Tyee Builder program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip into our editorial budget so that we can keep doing what we do best: fact-based, in-depth reporting on issues that matter to our readers. No paywall. No junk. Just good journalism.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to be Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.
Culture

Are You Blinded by Righteous Anger?

Why advocates are more apt to win if they admit foes aren't evil. From James Hoggan's new book.

By James Hoggan 25 May 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Author and thought leader James Hoggan launches his new book, I'm Right and You're an Idiot, published by New Society Publishers, with a lecture and Q&A exploring propaganda, manipulation and public discourse on Wednesday, May 25 at 7:30 p.m., Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema, Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, 149 W. Hastings St. Tickets here.

[Editor's note: This is one of three excerpts The Tyee is publishing from 'I'm Right and You're An Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up' by James Hoggan, published by New Society Publishers. A public relations expert who co-founded DeSmog Blog, Hoggan will speak at the Vancouver book launch May 25; details here.]

When we look at the miserable state of public discourse today and how we are polluting the public square, it's plain to see that many people believe the problem derives from evil on "the other side." But this kind of pollution comes from all around the square -- including our side -- and as long as we think somebody else is the source of it, we're unlikely to ever see our way through it.

The problem is structural and derives from human psychology, the way we look at the world and from ill-intentioned and well-intentioned sources alike.

It also arises from the nature of advocacy.

My ideas about this book were still developing when I came across the work of lobbyist, litigator and consensus builder Roger Conner, who has spent close to half a century studying public discourse and now teaches non-litigation strategies for social and political change at Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville, Tennessee.

Conner told me that my pollution analogy is particularly apt when applied to climate change because smog was long believed to come from factories. Eventually we acknowledged the possibility that it was individual car drivers who were causing the greatest harm -- a controversial view when first advanced.

Conner believes that most of us aren't evil, and good people sometimes do bad things for good reasons. If we don't understand that, we fall into something he calls the advocacy trap, which happens when we come to believe that people who disagree with us are wrongdoers. This judgment causes us to become locked into a stance where we lose sight of our purpose, where we can't collaborate to solve global or systemic problems.

'Name 'em, shame 'em, blame 'em'

Roger Conner acknowledged he spent the first part of his career as a "name 'em, blame 'em, shame 'em advocate" and thought he had learned everything he needed to know about advocacy in Sunday school: "There was David and Goliath, and I was always David. There was Moses and Pharaoh, and I was always Moses." What these biblical heroes did exceedingly well was identify the source of evil, name it and crush it. Conner was caught up by that brilliant simplicity, and his first gig as an advocate was in the environmental movement, running the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. His motto there was: We fight evil and do good.

But then Conner went to Washington, D.C. to work on immigration issues and discovered a whole other cadre of people who thought that they were David and he was Goliath. "They wanted to destroy me," Conner realized. Still, he decided the way to be a successful advocate was to redouble his efforts to overcome his enemies. The media loved him, and soon Conner was appearing on every major talk show in the U.S. and was a regular on CNN's Crossfire.

One day he was invited to the U.S. National Institute of Justice to work on crime and disorder issues "at a time when big cities in the U.S. were falling apart." For the first time in his life, he found his tried-and-true approach -- identifying the correct solution, identifying the enemy and overcoming the enemy -- didn't work. "If you're trying to get rid of a group of drug dealers, maybe that works. But you can't deal with police that way, or neighborhood organizations or the public defender."

Roger Conner began earnestly researching local communities all around the U.S. that were successfully tackling crime. He found solutions were evolving wherever members of the community and police worked collaboratively, where people suspended areas of disagreement and sought common goals. Perhaps most importantly, he realized it was impossible to understand the problems, let alone create solutions, without deeply hearing what people were saying.

'The advocacy trap'

At Vanderbilt Law School, while consulting to a couple of foundations, Conner witnessed how many public policy issues devolved into shoving matches in which neither side fully understood the problem. He saw people blinded by their own resentments and hatred. This happens because most of us have attitudes toward other people or groups that are determined by their behavior toward us. "If you behave like my enemy, I understand you are my enemy." If you behave like a self-interested, profit-seeking, care-nothing-for-the-environment person and call me a liar, I see you as my enemy, Conner said. So we commonly allow our stance to be determined by other people's behavior.

And this leads to what Conner calls the advocacy trap. People don't start out as enemies -- it happens in stages. When people disagree with us, we first question their views, but eventually we question their motives and intentions. When they persist in their disagreement with us, we start to perceive them as aggressors. When they criticize our cause or condemn our reasoning, our defence mechanisms kick in. We are offended and start to get angry. When both sides in an argument draw their stance from the perceived behavior of the other, people eventually start treating each other as not just wrong, but as wrongdoers, and then as enemies. Once that happens, it is almost impossible to do anything over a sustained period of time other than futilely push one another.

Conner observed that the advocacy trap is very much like other seductive but ultimately self-destructive pleasures. In the short run it provides attention, "from the all-important media and applause, not to mention money, from their base, but in the long run this behavior prevents them [advocates] from fulfilling the calling that drew them into public advocacy in the first place."

Advocates: up your game

Effective advocates need to shift from push, to collaborate, to pull as circumstances change. It's very difficult to engage in genuine collaboration or even compromise with someone you consider untrustworthy, evil or despicable. In a sustained dispute, if both parties draw their impressions from the perceived behavior of the other, each of them mirrors what they think the other is doing. It doesn't take long for them to look at each other with profound distrust. Once the advocacy trap is set, breaking the circle of blame is extraordinarily difficult. To explicitly and consciously choose a stance of respect, or better yet empathy and compassion -- and to do so without expectation of reciprocity -- is exceedingly hard.

Conner does not suggest people stop fighting for what they believe in, he believes the challenge lies in creating new, more sophisticated advocates. He counsels us all to police our attitudes so we can learn to push sometimes, pull sometimes, collaborate sometimes, and remain limber enough to sway back and forth, like a light-footed boxer, as the situation demands.

Too much aggression will automatically and absolutely increase the energy the other side is devoting to an issue, Conner explained. "Nothing's so common as powerful groups creating resistance by overplaying their hands and dealing in ungenerous or resentful ways."

Tomorrow: The series finishes with insights on power and love by a master resolver of international conflicts.  [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free.

LATEST STORIES

The Barometer

Tyee Poll: What Is One Art or Design Skill You Wish to Learn?

Take this week's poll