thinking about tolerance and opinion polls




Some years ago I wrote a few posts about the “adda” in Calcutta. Since then the term has a Wikipedia entry; there’s been an award-winning film made about the phenomenon (which you can watch here in its entirety, worth it for the music alone):

Even the New York Times covered the topic earlier this year: The Chattering Masses.

I loved addas. One of the reasons I loved them was that dissent was not just acceptable but often expected. There was a tolerance for different points of view, and we all learnt as a result.

We should never seek to prevent dissenting voices. It’s like taking painkillers that deal with the symptom of the pain and not the root cause: the dissent doesn’t go away, just its visibility.

Over a decade ago, we started experimenting with blogs and wikis where I worked; everyone was encouraged to participate. Soon after we began, thorny questions emerged about the way sales were credited and commissions paid. I was contacted by the powers-that-be to suppress the comments and to “have a word” with the questioners. I let the questions ride, educating the would-be objectors on the folly of driving dissent underground.

Today we live in a world of polarisation on many topics; politicians seek to engineer perennial re-election by gerrymandering us into returning districts and constituencies that are homogeneous, uncaring that they create Fergusons in their wake.

That polarisation creates extremes of behaviour, as far removed from the tolerance I was used to in Calcutta as is humanly possibly. If we look at the Obama re-election, the Scottish referendum and the recent UK general election there are some intriguing common elements:

  • the media and the pollsters kept describing the election as “too close to call”
  • at least one side of the argument took to violence in speech and sometimes in action: strong derogatory words and phrases were used, slogans daubed, missiles thrown; it became socially impossible to be seen as taking the other side
  • the result was something that “no one expected”

Pfui. As Nero Wolfe would have said.

Actually there were people who expected it. People like Nate Silver, trained to look at the facts holistically and in their entirety. Not emotion but data.

Why did most of the pollsters get it wrong? Because they didn’t allow for the driving of dissent underground. They didn’t allow for the effect of the screams and the bullying, the intolerance of at least one side.

Never drive dissent underground. The dissent doesn’t actually go away, it just disappears from view and becomes more powerful.


Let me know what you think

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