Thursday, March 15, 2012

Irrational negativity is harming us

A cloud of irrational negativity has descended upon our shores.  While this may well be a reaction to many of the challenges Bermuda has faced over the past few years, it makes for more strained public discourse and actually weakens our ability to work collectively to address our more pressing problems. A key characteristic of this irrational negativity is the development of an expansive hyperbolic argument from information which may either be faulty, incomplete, out of context or distorted. Under this scenario accuracy in information in pushed away in favour of outrage and a predilection toward doom and gloom. 

My thinking on this was pricked last week when a colleague—who has done so much to promote Bermuda’s profile internationally—said she has never seen so much negativity in Bermuda: in politics, the workplace, social media, community organisations. 

Two examples bring into relief this irrational negativity. When Premier Cox introduced Mr Scott Simmons as a PLP candidate she pointed out that as press attach√© he worked in the White House. A few friends immediately deemed Premier Cox arrogant for placing the Cabinet Building on par with the White House in Washington.  In fact, the building adjacent to the Cabinet Building was named the White House in 1839 when it was built; and there is a plaque on the wall to prove it.  

Last week there were media reports of a Caribbean Conference next week in Cayman, where Premier Cox, Dr Ewart Brown and myself are all scheduled to present papers. Each of us was invited separately: Premier Cox, no doubt as the leader of the largest and most constitutionally advanced UK colony; Dr Brown because of his strong ties;  and myself since I have been working on these issues for more than twenty years and am usually invited to such conferences. For some reason this sparked more than 300 comments on the Bernews website most of which were not simply negative, they expressed outrage.  Claims that this was a government junket, Dr Brown should not be part of a Bermuda contingent, we have more important things to focus on, etc.  These hyperbolic comments were all misplaced: Dr Brown and I are not part of any government delegation and we are certainly paying our own way. These facts were never brought out and the hysteria over an academic conference most people would find exceedingly dry , while initially humourous, reflects a deep seated negativity that needs very little by way of information to gain traction. 

Some of this negativity is fuelled by politically partisan activists but I suspect it is in the main a product of the discontent so many feel today. The challenge for the country is that we weaken our ability to have civic engagement on critical issues if the discourse is wrapped in uncompromising rhetoric. When we dispense with this, then we can make progress.

We have a great opportunity to do this as we consider the further development of our fishing industry. Government has indicated its intention of negotiating with the Japanese fishing industry to issue licenses: a petition has been launched calling on a ban of any long line fishing. With these two polarizing views we have an opportunity to explore the viability of a sustainable and environmentally sound model that could well satisfy both objectives. 

In the short term, this irrational negativity is not likely to diminish; we may have to wait until after the election.  But we must move beyond it if we want to build a stronger Bermuda.

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