In defence of reason
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
October 08, 2012. Allan Gregg
On Sept. 5, I was invited by Carleton University to deliver a lecture marking the opening of their spectacular new Public Affairs building. Using George Orwell’s dystopian novel as a device to tie my arguments together, the talk was entitled, “1984 in 2012: The Assault on Reason.” I delivered the lecture, then dutifully posted the text on my website, announcing its existence to my meagre band of Twitter followers. Since then, the lecture has been shared on Twitter, posted on Facebook, aired on CPAC, linked to by numerous other news sharing sites, including iPolitics and The Huffington Post, cited in the House of Commons and read by hundreds of thousands.
I never expected these remarks would “go viral.” Like most public speakers, I held out nothing more than the modest hope they would reach beyond those in attendance, that they would have some impact on the broader conversation.
The most obvious reason for the reaction my speech received is that there are a lot more people than I realized who harbour some of the same concerns I expressed — namely, that governments are ceasing to use evidence, facts and science as the basis to guide policy and instead, are retreating to dogma, fear and partisan advantage to steer the ship of state.
As I said in the lecture, my concern was first piqued in July 2010, when the federal cabinet announced its decision to cut the mandatory long form census and replace it with a voluntary one, citing “privacy concerns.”
As someone who had used the census — both as a commercial researcher and when I worked on Parliament Hill — I knew how important these data were to policy analysts. How could a government forsake the census’s valuable insights — and the chance to make good public policy — under the pretence that rights were somehow violated by asking Canadians how many bathrooms were in their home?
Next was the long gun registry. The federal government made good on its promise to dismantle it regardless of the fact that virtually every police chief in Canada said it was important to their work.
Then, the promise of a massive penitentiary construction spree which flew directly in the face of a mountain of evidence that crime was on the decline.
Even a cursory examination of the most recent federal budget reveals that the 19,000 job cuts announced therein were not to be achieved across-the-board or through attrition, but were targeted very precisely at researchers, statisticians, scientists and other organizations who might use data to contradict a government which believed that evidence and rational compromise are not the tools of enlightened public policy, but barriers to the pursuit of an agenda based on ideology over reason.
The lecture was not simply a screed against the current administration, but a cautionary tale about why we must value reason as the cornerstone of good public policy, and even democracy.
The thesis rested on the notion that the marketplace of ideas is open to all and the fate of those ideas is based on their merit (rather than birthright or finance). In this sense, reason reinforces equality. Moreover, when we engage in public debate, armed with reason, by definition we are prepared to compromise and find common ground with those who might otherwise be our opponents. In this way, reason has a civilizing effect.
Reason has also taught us that it is cheaper and more efficient to enter into a commercial arrangement with our neighbours than to invade, plunder or colonize them. Trade of goods and services between nations, in turn, inflates and widens our empathy beyond kin and tribe and encourages peace, immigration and pluralism.
More than anything else, societal progress has been advanced by enlightened public policy that marshals our collective resources toward a larger public good. Over time, we discovered that effective solutions can only be generated when they correspond to an accurate understanding of the problems they are designed to solve. Evidence, facts and reason form thesine qua non of not only good policy, but good government.
While not a partisan attack, I think my lecture also provided some insight into the motivation of this government and a context to understand some of its more, shall we say, curious practices. The handmaidens of evidence-absent dogma are almost always secrecy, obfuscation and misdirection. A quick review of some of the bills passed or on the order paper of this session of the House of Commons gives you a sense of the pattern of “newspeak” that has become the language of our legislators. Bills to dismantle the Wheat Board are referred to as the “Marketing Freedom for Grain Famers Act.” Building more prisons and stiffening penalties for possession of marijuana are sold as “The Safe Streets and Community Act.” The list is endless and might even strike some as funny if it wasn’t so terrifying.
What’s disconcerting about all of this is not just the substance of these bills, but why a government would want to disguise that substance. Maybe dismantling the Wheat Board or sending more potheads to jail is a good thing. But before we make those decisions, let’s look at all the facts; have a full and rational debate; and make a reasoned decision on what is best for all the parties involved. For voters to determine whether they support these measures requires that they know what is at stake and what the government is actually doing.
Moreover, for the rule of law to work, the public must have respect for the law. By obfuscating the true purpose of laws under the gobbledygook of double speak, governments are admitting their intentions probably lack both support and respect. This too explains this government’s obsession with secrecy, message control and misdirection.
Some reactions to the lecture, however, gave me pause. The plaintive cry from the scientists — “What do we do now?” And from young people — “How do we fight back?” These are the questions now.
What is next and what can we as citizens do to protest or change a political power structure that is slowly suffocating reason out of the process? There are the obvious options: we can join a political party or movement, or (as scientists did in Ottawa this July) organize a protest. But I suspect none of this will be sufficient to bring about the desired change. A clue to the real solution may lie in what happened with my lecture.
To the best I can determine, it was first spread largely by academics who attended the event. It was then quickly picked up and circulated by the scientific community. It then somehow gravitated to members of the Occupy movement and from there, it found a big audience with the “I hate Stephen Harper” crowd. Eventually, it was discovered by an even larger audience of people who share an interest in media and politics.
Academics, activists, media hoi polloi, politicos, Internet agitators, ordinary citizens, Facebook friends — strange bedfellows? Maybe. That this unlikely coalition joined together, not by a natural allegiance, but by virtue of sharing a common interest, demonstrates the real power of social media. This is indeed an important new weapon to advance democracy.
When Enlightenment thinkers began extolling the importance of reason as the linchpin of liberty and progress, general franchise elections and political parties did not exist. To the extent that protests against tyranny were held, they were met with grapeshot.
But against enormous odds, communicating with a barely literate public, with no democratically rooted rule of law, no ubiquitous media, a limited right to assemble, these new ideas spread rapidly throughout the western world and ignited the imaginations of would-be citizens.
What made Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense so revolutionary was that this cheap, lively little read could be readily distributed beyond the intelligentsia. It was accessible to the average person, and there, it caught fire. Pamphlets were the social media of the times and they played a central role in triggering entire revolutions.
History shows us that, over time, science’s authority always undermines dogma’s legitimacy; and the persuasive power of reason will always trump ideology’s emotion. The best defence against dogma and ideology continues to be reason and science.
History has also shown that tyrants can have a truncated shelf life if the citizenry enters the public forum and, armed with facts, reasoned arguments, and thoughtful ideas, engages in a loud debate. In the case of those who would stand against reason, our silence will be perceived as consent. There’s too much at stake to be silent.
If it feels lame to suggest that the solution about what to do next is to talk to each other more, I invite you to review history and ask yourselves what role public discourse has had in the toppling of dictators and despots. Right now, there seems to be a very one-sided conversation going on and the powers that be are leading it. We have our hands on the easiest levers the world has ever known by which to spread an idea and lead our own conversation. Let’s use them.
Allan Gregg, chair of Harris/Decima, is one of Canada’s best known social researchers and political commentators.
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