Ideas

The Death of Imagination and Debate

The real enemy of progress and democracy is not the "other guy", the one on the right or left, but decisions to stifle discussion, sling mud, and reduce argument to ad-hominem attacks.

By Ted Mitchell
Published September 15, 2005

One of the most destructive realities of modern society is the over-simplifying of issues into political "right" and "left". Before real discussion of an issue can occur, the position taken by both sides is already determined. The issue is rarely dissected into consequences or examined for consistency.

For example, let us consider the hot button issue of abortion. This is a life and death matter, regardless of the age where the legal definition of life starts. It also involves the most basic and important freedom of all, self-determination. When was the last time you saw a balanced discussion pitting one of these issues against the other? How about never?

From the right, you have a simple "abortion is killing, which is absolutely evil" approach, with zero mention of compromising freedom. Funny, right-wingers apparently are all about defending freedom on a number of other issues. Hypocrisy?

From the left, the freedom of personal choice is the focus, with the issue of killing reduced to a debate on the legal definition of life. This is a cop-out that limits discussion and draws a line in the sand.

From this stalemate, no real progress can happen.

What is it within us that causes this right/left dichotomy? Let us consider only the social aspects for the moment and leave out economics.

We clearly differ in our comfort level with uncertainty. For example, in medicine, pretty much everything is a grey area. In engineering, things tend to be more black and white. Having the perspective of both professions, I notice that sometimes one person has to be comfortable in both circumstances.

Many people however, choose or are capable of only one approach, whatever the problem may be. We all know and are frustrated by people who cannot commit to a decision, as they are hopelessly lost in grey areas. Similarly, there are those who drive us mad with a black and white interpretation of a clearly more complex problem.

But the comfort level for uncertainty is only one part of the issue and does not explain the degree of social polarization. One level deeper leads us to the topic of imagination. The reason that people "see" in black and white or grey has to do primarily with how much imagination we exercise in problem solving. Perhaps the key is one more refinement beyond imagination, that part of it which applies to people, which you could call empathy.

On the right, we have far too little imagination and empathy for someone in different circumstances than one's own. Those on the social left interpret this as selfish and evil, but it is quite possibly the unconscious result of simply not being able to do the requisite mental and emotional gymnastics - not being able to walk a mile in another's shoes.

On the left, exercising too much imagination can result in losing sight of reality in a paralysing picture of "what-ifs". The social right gets frustrated by perceived indecision and lack of focus for the issue at hand.

Surely there is a middle ground. How do we find it?

Given that hard-wired differences exist in our brains which tend to develop us into the social "left" or "right", we need to be aware of our own propensities and recognize them in others. We need to get beyond labels and get back to discussing issues in their most basic from, free from destructive assumptions. All of us need to be able to listen.

Writers for Raise the Hammer want to make Hamilton a better place to live, which is also the aim of most of city council, despite agreeing on little else. From this starting point, we need to debate issues in the open and air all opinions and interests. There is no other way to bridge the imagination gap and push this city forward.

The real enemy of progress and democracy is not the "other guy", the one on the right or left, but decisions to stifle discussion, sling mud, and reduce argument to ad-hominem attacks. This is always anti-democratic, whether the issue is abortion or Hamilton's aerotropolis.

We have had enough dictatorships in the past that we don't need new ones, like the current Bush administration or, closer to home, Hamilton's city council.

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.

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By Arthur Wills (anonymous) | Posted December 13, 2006 at 04:53:50

Whilst containing many truths the author appears a cynic, and their views are extremely biased. However, did they consider that maybe the idea of democracy itself could be the problem? Perhaps politicians have to take these views to stand a chance of winning an election, which is their main goal?

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