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Power, Love and How to Change the World

From 'I'm Right and You're An Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up.'

James Hoggan 26 May

Author and thought leader James Hoggan is the author of I'm Right and You're an Idiot, newly published by New Society Publishers.

[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, a public relations expert who co-founded DeSmog Blog. The book is published by New Society Publishers.]

Canadian facilitator Adam Kahane is an authority on social change and has spent much of his career outside Canada, working to find creative, durable solutions for some of the world's toughest problems. I contacted him because I wanted to learn how he has helped resolve issues around the globe, dealing with everything from thorny environmental, political and economic problems to issues of nutrition, energy and security -- all through an advanced and specialized form of dialogue called Scenario Planning.

One of Adam Kahane's first high profile successes was in 1991-92, just as apartheid was ending in South Africa and Nelson Mandela had been released from prison. At this crucial time, Kahane facilitated the Mont Fleur Scenario Exercises in which 22 leaders from across the ideological spectrum of South African society worked together to construct possible narratives about the future of their country. In the midst of great conflict and mistrust, Kahane helped politicians, business people, trade unionists, academics and activists -- black and white -- to establish a common vocabulary and mutual understanding.

With his immense experience in more than 50 countries I knew Kahane could shed light on our current state of public discourse. Yet this did not prepare him for what was happening in the Prime Minister Stephen Harper era in his native country. "I'm surprised at the polarization," he said. "I could say, worse than that, the demonization of public discourse generally, but especially around environment issues. We see this in many countries on many issues, but I was expecting something better in Canada." He noted the level of fragmentation, polarization, and demonization was almost as dramatic as that he'd seen in other countries.

Bumped heads

Kahane's work has shown him it is increasingly vital for people to work together, not just with friends and colleagues, but also with strangers and opponents, even enemies, in order to address knotty challenges of which climate change is an extreme example. He doesn't expend any energy trying to convince people to do something they don't want to. He looks instead for an attitude -- whether from NGOs, corporations or governments -- a shift, that shows people finally recognize they cannot get where they want to alone. They are ready to come together because "usually they have bumped their head hard."

If actors are not initially willing to participate, he tries to find a way in, a crack. Even simply agreeing that the situation is dire can sometimes be enough of a toehold to allow the actors to begin to engage. This kind of work is a perpetual cycle that alternates between advocating and collaborating, "between pushing with all your strength for what you believe is true and right, and sitting and talking, trying to work with people who you don't understand, or trust, or like." The stress of going from the ramparts to the negotiating table is always exacerbated by power imbalances -- the power of money, or politics or ideas, he said.

Adam Kahane calls the two basic pillars of his work power and love. Most people associate the word power with oppression and love with romance, but he quotes theologian Paul Tillich who said power is the drive of everything living to realize itself in increasing intensity and extensity, and love is the drive to unify the separated. "The tension between power and love is at the very centre of all social change work," said Kahane.

Coming unstuck

Both love and power have a generative and a degenerative side when taken to extremes. For instance, nothing happens without power, without an engine to drive us forward. But when taken too far, power becomes a destructive and confrontational steamroller. Similarly, love can engender a sense of oneness and collaboration, but can also be suffocating and emasculating. Kahane quoted Martin Luther King: "Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic."

Coming unstuck requires knowing when to exercise both power and love, and Kahane noted the elegance of this model is that it can apply at any scale of social system, from a family to a global issue.

One of the most effective ways to get unstuck is to tell stories that enable us to create new futures, hence Kahane's focus on transformational scenarios. These are not forecasts about what could or should happen. They are not attempts to make predictions, blueprints or come up with solutions. They are designed to generate new thinking. "They are not about what people want, but about what's possible."

How does Adam Kahane encourage people to work together? He believes that two things generate movement toward resolution: a feeling of frustration and a deep desire for change. "If I could get there alone why would I bother to sit in long meetings with people I don't trust and don't agree with?"

Dialogue alone does not advance a problematic situation because we need to change not only what we're saying, but also what we're doing. That's a challenge for people who hope a pressing problem will go away by just talking about it. That's one reason why working in Canada can be so difficult: The status quo works just fine for most people and is a significant barrier to change." Whereas the advantage of working in South Africa, or Guatemala or India is, "nobody has any illusion that things are just fine the way they are."

Tick, tock

Kahane said the time limit associated with climate change is what makes it exceptional -- and exceptionally difficult. We need creative work to get out of the climate change box because it is an extremely serious challenge; it has been the most clearly explained future crisis ever, and yet all that information has failed to motivate people, he noted.

I suggested that industry and governments might do a better job of managing their interests if they decided to be less combative and more constructive. He agreed saying he is surprised that the dangers and costs of climate change are not taken more seriously by the population at large and by governments in particular. Yes, there are major costs associated with change, but the cost of not changing is to live in an over-heated world: "I don't get why those slightly longer-term questions cannot be grasped." People tend to say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. The world's burning, but... we're not going to fix this on the back of my stockholders, my employees, my tax bill." He is amazed that we have made so little progress, and in some areas are backsliding. "It's willful denial of the effects we're already feeling."

He said climate change is the most difficult problem in the world, which is why despite enormous, serious, intelligent, good-willed efforts, we're not making progress. He believes this will continue until the cost of failing to engage with these issues and in collaborative action -- for companies, governments, the voting public and consumers -- is so high that ignoring it is no longer feasible.

High quality communication is critical and that springs from open-mindedness, self-awareness and good listening skills. But as powerful as dialogue is, Kahane said it would be a fundamental error to focus on that alone. "It's certainly part of the story, but dialogue is, above all, a love methodology, a love tool for uniting the separated," and love without power is dialogue without implementation. The answer is to connect dialogue with action.

I mentioned to Kahane that it's impossible to discount the persuasive power of some of history's great leaders, who weren't involved in dialogue at all, but single-mindedly focused on persuasion. He took that point further, explaining that the important dichotomy is not between dialogue and persuasion, but between dialogue and unilateral action. Kahane argued both are required. Things change in the world when people see something that needs to be done and something that is, in some sense, in their interests. So they act accordingly. They may act insensitively, forcefully and in some cases even violently, but without that kind of drive many things would not take shape.

The dangers involved in pure power without love, however, are rampant and are leading to the destruction of our planet, he said.

"We mustn't let the pendulum swing to one side or the other."  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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