Denial, culture and ideology
October 2, 2011 § 3 Comments
Is climate change denial all to do with uncomfortable emotions and psychological defences as I argued last month? Dan Kahan and the cultural cognition project argue that denial has more to do with a particular kind of rationality that is rooted in people’s cultural beliefs. His research produces some interesting results.
Kahan and cultural cognition
In his paper The Tragedy of the Risk Perception Commons Kahan takes the well-known argument that people tend to rely on heuristics (rules of thumb) to make judgments on risk and examines it further. He shows that it’s not factual knowledge or faulty reasoning that define people’s assessments of climate change. Their responses actually have more to do with whether the solutions to climate change sit comfortably with their existing world view. Kahan’s research identified people on two scales – ‘Hierarchical vs Egalitarian’ and ‘Individualist vs Communitarian’. People who score highly on both these scales – the ‘Hierarchical-Individualists’ – tend to rate the risk of climate change as low. For these people climate change solutions threaten things which they value highly, for example commerce, industry and individual freedom. From this standpoint, says Kahan, it’s perfectly rational to reject the science or underestimate the risks. It keeps you in step with the people who matter in your life. To accept the reality of climate change would put these people at odds with their cultural group and its values. Most interesting however is the effect of greater scientific numeracy and literacy amongst this group. Far from shifting their low risk perception, greater scientific understanding tended to amplify it. This is important because it makes it clear that focusing on improved scientific information won’t do the trick.
Kahan concludes that the answer is to sell climate change in ways that will appeal more effectively to those on the hierarchical-individualist spectrum. Emphasising high-tech solutions like nuclear power and geo-engineering are high on his list. Essentially, this is a return to social marketing – segment the audience, find a creative pitch and sell to people’s existing values and assumptions. The questions Kahan doesn’t raise lurk uncomfortably in the background. Kahan doesn’t ask where people’s ideas and values come from, whose interests different values promote and how some values and not others come to predominate in different historical periods. He doesn’t question why people often hold values that seem to run counter to their personal or class interests (think of the US Tea Party) or why lobby groups work so hard to push their particular framing of issues. Neither does he ask how risk makes people feel and how anxiety influences opinion.
Gramsci and cultural hegemony
Gramsci argued that the powerful maintain their power, not through superior force and overt oppression but through cultural hegemony, a more subtle form of domination by consent. Cultural hegemony means that the terms of the debate become framed in particular ways, certain ideas feel natural, particular actions feel like ‘common sense’ and there seems to be no language to describe other experiences. There is no conspiracy in this, simply the complex and unstable movements of social and cultural currents. From this point of view, Kahan’s hierarchical-individualists could also be read, not as a natural phenomenon but as the unconscious vanguard and footsoldiers of what Professor Stuart Hall refers to in a recent Guardian article as “the long march of the Neoliberal Revolution”. Over the last thirty years there have been big shifts in ideas about what makes a good life, what constitutes a good society and the relative responsibilities of individuals and the state. Extrinsic rather than intrinsic values dominate public discourse. The market operates as a metaphor for all social relations. The space for speaking about collective rather than individual solutions to social problems has shrunk.
Risk, anxiety and culture shifts
This type of analysis suggests that instead of selling climate change to hierarchical-individualists through nuclear power and geo-engineering we should be thinking more broadly about how to challenge and subvert the neo-liberal hegemony and its dominant values. To take Stuart Hall’s words again, we should be aware of the inherent instability of these cultural positions and look for the emergent “… counter-movements, resistance, alternative strategies and visions …”
More than this however, I think we should be aware of the anxiety that may underlie the hierarchical-individualist position, particularly when it is expressed by people who have very little power in society. Instead of seeing it as a permanent expression of a natural state of mind we should be aware that in a world that feels risky the apparent security of strong authority and big solutions is attractive to many. Talking about how risk and anxiety make people feel and finding other ways of offering security may also be essential.