Seeing Eye to Eye

Consider this burning farmhouse in Zimbabwe. It belongs to Ben Freeth, a farmer who’s recent life and times would take the edge of the slings and arrows that might be disturbing our own sense of personal harmony. You think you’ve got it bad!

There are various reports of the events that led to the burning of the Freeth homestead; some dry and matter-of-fact and others that paint a picture of an icon of the end-days of a civilisation in terminal decline. Some reports also show Freeth with his head bandaged. He and his family were recently abducted and beaten by those who believe there should be no white farmers left in Zimbabwe. It’s not a pleasant picture.

Without digging into the rights and wrongs of what’s happened there, Zimbabwe now is clearly a picture of the despair of dislocated, severely incompatible world views in terminal collision. It’s all along the lines of the Lord of the Flies. When different people see different things, and fail to even begin to see how and what it is that others see, you end up with situations that can spin wildly out of control. Just like in Zimbabwe, or at the root of any war.

Clearly, if by some magical transformation of psychology, farmer Freeth could transform the minds of all those who assail him to see and and to know exactly as he sees and knows, his immediate anxieties would cease. Or, if by some horrendous experiment in mind control, we had all been completely inculcated into the world views of Pol Pot or Hitler (as so many had), there’d have been less opposition to those tyrant’s plans. The point being that diversity of point-of-view is both the source and solution to power plays that get out of hand.

We all see things differently; sometimes dramatically, sometimes via subtle shades of grey. Those shades are layered via the experiences we have, genetic predisposition, social influence, or perhaps through being abducted by aliens. Whatever the source, our minds are a nightmare collage of upturned perceptual paint pots fused into blots of outrageous tonal complexity. If you want to follow that thought, give the insights of Hans Georg Gadamer a run.

If you want to understand how any particular crisis arose, to dig into the controversies that give us pain, or to simply become more informed about any issue with which you are involved, you need to dig into the minds of those with whom we are at odds.

I am perpetually amazed at the refusal of people to recognise the simple fact that different people see things in different ways. In academic, scientific or deep-policy circles, all this translates to the multiplicity of ‘paradigms’ that might apply to tell different stories about situations we might be seeking to control. I am perpetually stunned that so many ‘good scientists’ working on noble causes – like the causes of and prospects for global warming – refuse to take any interest in that ‘psychological’ side of things. They would generally know about the co-existence of paradigms that might not be quite the same as their own. But their usual interest stops precisely there. I am stunned that we can have slings and arrows of invective thrown through the medium of the media or through the ‘learned press’; without the parties ever conceding that there might possibly be multiple ‘truths’ to the situations they contest. Truths are defined within these paradigms. A truth constructed within one paradigm might be a fallacy from within the construct of another. What you might see as false might be a truth to someone else. Both contestants are arguing entirely up the wrong tree! The argument is not about the truth they each see; its over these different ways of seeing the ‘facts’. The pathway to resolution is within the layout of the stones each camp erects as a pyramid to the beliefs they each hold. We need to do some archeology of the mind to understand what’s really going on.

But, despite the fact that few if anyone would deny that different people see things in different ways, how many contestants to any debate ever bother to dig down to these fundamental layers to understand the true nature of their debate?

I’ve witnessed intelligent, informed scientists debating like hissing-spitting children in pre-school playgrounds. I’ve witnessed entire professional careers destroyed by those whose empowerment privileges their own view over the views others might hold. I can certainly attest to that; my own career as a transdisciplinary ecological economist was destroyed by the scientific myopia of un-reflexive bureaucrats entrenched through far too much power.

It almost seems that some people simply love the excitement of shouting their point of view. It almost seems that they simply don’t want to hear. It seems that they just want to hear their own voice.

When it comes to issues like the conflagration of an entire community like Zimbabwe, or the conflagration of the planet through the machinations of global warming, you’d be thinking it might be worthwhile to devote at least some time to really getting down to understand what’s really going on… Rather than to continue on with the blinkered shouting and screaming between those who occupy different squares on the war-game that climate change has become.

But no! Even in such high profile efforts as the Stern Review, there’s never any genuine discussion or consideration of the fundamental need to understand contested points of view. There’s only ever a claim for the ascendency of one view – a compressed ‘consensus view’ shaped by the hair net of selective perspectives – without the systematic de-construction of any other views that might prevail. One adjudicated, ultimately privileged view is claimed. The others are appendixed off into the crowd of the fringe. Dutifully noted, maybe, but relegated all the same. Contrary arguments are arguments from beyond the sanctum of the ‘peers’. They are arguments with nothing to contribute. All that’s at least implicit when you claim the ascendency of one viewpoint over all others. Our experts listen only to the music of their peers. How, then, do they ever explore the possibilities of lateral thinking and ideas that might transcend from the realm of heresy to the realm of the mainstream?

Remember Galileo Galilei? Remember one-size-fits all medicine bags filled with nothing but leeches?

I expect more from folk who are paid by the pound of their intelligence. I expect more from those who are paid to contribute to intellectual debate: our academics, public sector scientists and leaders. I expect a vastly greater degree of intellectual maturity; a preparedness if not a devotion to the challenges of understanding – really understanding – different points of view. I do not respect those who simply assert their views by shouting, or by privileging their positions with power. The rejection of insight from the fringes is simply cowardice or evidence of insufficient intellectual depth; or both.

The Australian Prime Minister was busy suggesting, just this month, that he is sick of climate change deniers. He’s going to declare war against them! The implication is that their views are now to be taken as heresy. Invalid. That’s substandard leadership at its managerialist worst. It’s embarrassing.

Rather, what I would prefer to hear, is that ‘leadership’ is now intent to hold deliberative discourse to debate contrary points of view to depths not considered before. I want to hear of an intent to initiate a forum of a deeper, more reflexive, shared learning kind; not for yet more public deliberation shaped on the model of expert panels and judicial arbitration. The worst case outcome from genuinely insightful, levelled-playing field, discursively accommodating deliberation would be improved understanding of the deeply-seated axioms – the very epistemological foundations – for these discursive perspectives. (Any scientist, politician or bureaucrat adviser who does not know what ‘epistemology’ means should, seriously, be sacked). Thus far, all debates concerning ‘climate change’ have been (implicitly or explicitly) conducted through hierarchically- and perspective-privileged ‘expert’ review. I do not accept that the ‘hearing of evidence from diverse points of view’ by the various and numerous ‘climate change expert panels’ we’ve seen so far have taken my recommended path. They have all been conducted as ‘enquiries’ for the adjudication of expert elites. The process of delivering insights for expert panel deliberation is not a debate shaped by the prospect for maximum learning. It’s a process more akin to the hearing of evidence in court. The learning is all one-way and increasingly filtered on its journey to the ears of politicians and those who shape policy.

There are ways and means through which fundamental debate (or debate into the fundamentals of different perspectives) can take place. The key is talented and highly systematic facilitation. Read John Dryzek, John Forester or James Bohman for some clues. Read Peter Senge’s latest text (The Necessary Revolution) for some context. There is no excuse for ignorance of the insights these authors provide. But ignorance is in plenitude. I blame those bureaucracies charged with advising our political leaders for their abject ignorance. It is not good enough for them to re-play the same game the Church played at the time of Galileo Galilei. (Yes, we did ‘get there in the end’, with respect to understanding the earth’s revolution around the sun. But the journey was a blood bath and took way way too long as a model for dealing with a crisis like global warming).

It’s time for the character of the current climate change debate to rise above the level of a scrum in a pre-school playground. We need to take a wrecker’s ball to the silos of the ‘establishments of experts’ that currently blights the ascendency of knowledge. It’s time for the human race to progress from the illiteracy of closeted expert-driven autocracy. It’s time for an age where the very concept of ‘experts’ becomes a quaint reminder of our partial-reductionist, managerialist past. We should, as I recommended in my previous post, incite a very necessary sea change for the climate change debate.

Roderic Gill holds a PhD. in Ecological Economics from the University of New England where he is also currently an Adjunct Professor. He has supervised over 18 PhD theses that have dealt, both directly and indirectly, with the issues discussed above. He has a strong interest in the capacity of internet-based collaborative learning as the foundation for ‘dealing with’ fundamentally complex environmental issues.


One thought on “Seeing Eye to Eye

  1. Pingback: A Sea Change for Climate « Necessary Revolution

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