The day approaches when I will have to pull together all the ramblings and suggestions of the past fifteen weeks in order to make some sense of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. I have perhaps three more weeks to go rambling on, before the fell day arrives.
Last week I excoriated the CBC for shoddy journalism in its misinterpretation and misapplication of a very bad poll. The issue is important, because whether we should or not we, by whom I mean the body politic, are paying attention to polls and perhaps even using them to help us decide how to vote. If the polls are statistically flawed, as last week’s was, and the interpretations technically invalid, then we are being systematically misled. I think that is a problem. Fortunately it is one we can solve.
Today I am going to draw attention to some other journalistic practices that cause me concern. Again I am going to pick on the CBC, not only because it is probably the most important source of politically important information in the country, but also because of its pretensions.
First, for today, I will focus on the phrase, “The system is broken.” We hear this from time to time when a “system” (we need to scan that word thoroughly but I am not going to do it today) has made a decision that someone didn’t like. The CBC will interview that person, and report on the interview or broadcast the quote as “news”. Fair enough, as far as it goes. In some cases however that is as far as it goes. In others perhaps they will interview someone else who thinks the system is not broken, or perhaps a reporter will try to add some balance. Usually these efforts will not yield any phrase nearly as catchy as “the system is broken” and that is what sticks in the mind. Sometimes it is taken up by a politician, and reinforced. The idea that “the system is broken” is thus implanted without any equally effective counter-idea.
I believe it to be true in fact, and fully verifiable by empirical research, that not one of our important public “systems” is broken, although every one of them can be improved, every one of them is staffed by people who can make mistakes, and every one of them operates under constraints and must occasionally, or often, make difficult decisions or choices under conditions of uncertainty or risk. People are sometimes hurt by these decisions. If they were made differently, somebody else would be hurt. These situations are evidence of the human condition in complex circumstances, not of broken systems.
A recent, particularly egregious example of this kind of journalism was the recent CBC study of medical implants. We were treated therein to a small number of blood-curdling accounts of what instances when things went terribly wrong and to some statistics on the number of occasions when they went wrong but without any indications of severity. On no occasion were we ever told how many of these implants were in fact being carried around by people. The study provided no calculation of risk, nor any data that would allow us to make our own calculations. Is it possible that someone might react to these lurid reports by refusing to receive an much-needed implant?
Another bad phrase: “That is a worthy enough measure but does not go far enough.” Or words to that effect. Can we point to even one example, in the whole history of human progress, when perfection was achieved in one mighty bound? Real progress evolves incrementally, and so does regress. The cause in the hearts of people of good will (I am paraphrasing the dying Stephen Leacock) is not perfection, but steady improvement. It will be incremental, whether we like it or not, because that is how the democratic world wags, and should wag. Those who believe in immediate perfection are always authoritarians.
One of the realities that I believe to be fundamental to the pursuit of Social Justice is the tremendous inertia we have built into our human world, or has been built in for us, and a jolly good thing that is too. It may slow down progress, although we continue to make some so this inertia cannot be said prevent it. It also slows down regress, giving time to people of good will whose hearts are in the cause, time to slow down the regression or even reverse it. This tremendous inertia, that I have elsewhere called the Yottapede, imagined as a living organic presence, is both friend and enemy. That is part of the Riddle of Social Justice. This one becomes an Unsolved Riddle only if we don’t believe in it.
I am not finished with the CBC and its journalism yet, but I will leave my next gripe for next week. It has to do with predictions, forecasts, auguries, divinations, and other forms of articulated anticipation that pop up on the news under the guise of information. I believe it was a woman in one of O. Henry’s stories about the gentle grafter who offered the public “a dollar’s worth of honest prognostication”. We don’t need any of that, or even the dishonest kind, to pursue Social Justice. Facts and intelligent understanding about the present and the past will serve us quite well enough.
As we move forward, please keep our evolving set of key words in mind: Knowledge; Imagination; Compassion; Humour;—these comprise Leacock’s set, evolved in his lifetime;—Pluralism; Doublethink; Both-And;—these are evolving. Social Justice needs them. No Unsolved Riddle can stand up to them when they work together.