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Stuck on Zero


Published: 05/09/2014

by Jim Campbell

We are in the middle of a global war where information and disinformation fight for attention. The battle is being fought with intensity in newspapers, academic journals, radio talk shows, websites, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, TV documentaries, classrooms, courtrooms and conferences – and in our own homes.


As in all wars, fair play, clarity and honesty are early casualties. Half-truths and falsehoods have long shelf-lives as long as they score points against the ‘enemy’. The fights are about such topics as the usefulness of inoculations and genetically modified foods; the harvesting of seals; fish farming; nuclear energy; and building roads, dams and pipelines, or subways and airports.


The debaters are deeply committed, for there’s a lot at stake: big money to be made or lost, research funding to be secured or denied, reputations to be damaged or gained, and political power to be protected or won.


The discussions ring with warnings of terrible possible consequences if the other side wins: “We’ll freeze in the dark.” “Our food will poison us.” “Our children will be sterile.” “Our cities will be swept away by tides and floods.”


The fear factor works well because fear activates deep human emotions, and emotions always trump reason and logic. Former U.S. president John F. Kennedy spoke of the dangers when people “enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” So we get stuck on zero as the extremes drive for unconditional surrender, 100% victory.


A block in resolving the polarization in the debates is the desire to eliminate all risks, so there will be no breakdowns, collateral damage, blow-ups or misuse at all. Certainly we should eliminate as much risk as possible.


When risks can’t be eliminated, we devise ways to manage them.


Fifteen centuries ago, when our ancestors found ways to use fire to cook, to warm their dwellings, and to give light in the darkness, it was a step fraught with dangers. Deciding that the benefits far outweighed the dangers, our ancestors worked out how to manage the risks: putting rings of stones around fires, teaching every child of the dangers, dousing every campfire. To this day, fire management is a top priority; we educate and train every child in fire safety, maintain very expensive fire departments, and pass complex laws and building codes to manage the risks involved.


One of the great challenges at the beginning of the last century was the danger from mechanized traffic on streets and highways. The dangers were easily seen when cars zipped by on streets where children were playing. 


The dangers were real then and they are now. But, seeing the benefits to be had by the free movement of people in vehicles, we worked to control and manage traffic, to improve the streets and autos, and we educated our smallest children to ‘stop, look and listen’.


Today, unconditional surrender in the war of words is not going to happen. However, a lot could be done if the warring factions could, like our ancestors, look for realistic compromises and ways to manage the inevitable risks of progress. Otherwise our society will be stuck on zero. 


Jim Campbell is an Oakville author, writer and longtime contributor to HOME digest. He also blogs at We welcome your comments on this column at


Illustration for HOME digest by Rui Ramalheiro

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