Tales of Our Times
By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water
Why a Larger Scope is Scary
New technology spreads people’s words and selected sound-bites ever faster, farther and more widely. Communication pathways broaden, yet the stories they carry grow more narrow. Thin stories keep a thin audience.
The goal today is not to reach more people, but to persuade doubly those who already agree with our views. Public arguments try to appeal to known believers—to inspirit the faithful. In the fashion of our times, the aim is to “energize the base,” that is, to buck up one’s cohorts, not to create any new support. Yet, double strength opinions are not the same as twice the votes.
Today’s style shows up in many ways, large and small, from the shaping of the “debate” to dispensing tickets to political events. The game these days is to list a fact or two that weigh for one’s side, and pretend there is nothing more to say. The other side picks a fact or two that weigh for them, taking care to pick those that seem to leave no room for accommodation. Then both sides repeat their own points again and again and that is as far as it goes
There is no acceptance of any fact nor rebuttal of any. No back and forth to cull ideas. No effort to disclose the sturdy thread that ties the bits and pieces into a cogent story. Just shards—ghosts of a useful vessel—set in two small heaps.
My classic case is the long-standing one about pollution controls on coal-fired power plants. Industry’s advocates ply the public with economics: “A sulfur scrubber costs $300 million.” The opposing side replies, “SO2 is toxic.” Both bits are no doubt true. Yet for all they leave unsaid, each hook efficiently shreds understanding. And this was true before social media. Imagine now.
The unsaid part of $300 million is it may add $1 to a typical $100 electric bill, and it makes jobs for scrubber builders in the process. The unsaid part of toxic is, toxic at what dosage, dispersed how? Sea salt is toxic, too, yet is harvested and sold in health food stores. Each half-story is enough to stoke the faithful. When is it time to engage with both halves?
The techniques of advocacy may stem from courtroom methods. Litigation says the two half-stories together arrive at the truth. The pursuit of point and counter point—truth by shards—works well in that worthy forum of formal procedures and fixed rules, enforced discovery on a single matter, skilled cross-examination and the rebuttal of witnesses. The back-and-forth weaves a story on the matter that is as solidly wrought as a tapestry.
But truth by shards has little chance in the public forum of stick-on imagery, which has no rules, where people trash anything from the side “they know darn well” is wrong on all counts.
Politicians, too, are caught up in preaching to the choir. In the old days, campaigners spoke to the populace to seek support. Nowadays most in the audience are admitted through party routes for loyal party members, to ensure that views are applauded, not tested.
Flailing in lieu of advocating hurts more than its own causes. We sense a festering scorn for the democratic process. Headlines say money corrupts the system and it does. Still, flimsy arguing does more harm and is more widespread.
As with serious diseases, these problems never end. As health care teaches, a better course is to seek quicker and more accurate testing methods.
We are well aware of the human fear of quicker, truthful medical tests; politics is scarier. Every political camp fears to have tests that may show their hopes do not square with what the earnest scope beholds. It feels “safer” if we hear less of the story and find out less. So the ills grow worse.