In a post-truth environment, false perceptions can hurt us all

By Amira Elghawaby
The Globe and Mail | January 6, 2017

There’s a phone message we play during workshops that never fails to evoke reaction.

It’s the recording of a woman who called our office last fall to express her deep suspicion of Syrian refugees, Muslims and women in head scarves. “It’s getting to feel like we’re living in their country, there’s so many of them everywhere you look,” she laments.

Workshop participants typically shake their heads in bemusement, indignation or a mix of both. Yet a recent global survey indicates that many Canadians frequently overestimate the number of Muslims living in Canada, as do other Westerners in guessing the size of local Muslim populations.

According to the annual Ipsos poll, Perils of Perception, Canadians think that Muslims make up 17 per cent of Canada’s population. The reality is far lower, at 3 per cent.

What’s troubling is that such false perceptions are at times taken advantage of. Donald Trump infamously talked about banning Muslims from entering the United States – as though there were huge numbers arriving daily. Former prime minister Stephen Harper spoke derisively about the face veil (niqab) throughout the last federal election though only a tiny minority of Muslim women even wear one. Conservative-leadership contender Kellie Leitch’s problematic values test similarly banks on such anxieties. Negative political rhetoric and inaccurate perceptions create a potentially endless feedback loop.

According to the poll, people all around the world are frequently basing their views on emotions, rather than on fact. While it’s not surprising, it’s worrisome.

In 1738, philosopher David Hume defended the human instinct to base decision-making on our feelings as being absolutely necessary, as noted in a 2015 article in the Annual Review of Psychology. For instance, anger often plays a driving force in compelling someone to respond to injustice. That’s when “integral emotion” can be a beneficial guide.

However, in the same 2015 article, researchers also identify how integral emotion leads to bias and therefore potentially to problematic conclusions and decisions. Think of those who are too fearful to fly even though the odds of dying in a plane crash are far lower than those of dying in a car accident.

So in a post-truth, fake-news environment, can we rely on people’s perceptions to shape public policy? After all, governments – if they are truly democratic – must listen to the views of their citizenry. Various levels of government often say they aspire to consultative models of governance.

At face value, more consultation is welcome and necessary, but raises a host of questions. What if citizens are basing their opinions and values purely on their perceptions and feelings, rather than on hard evidence? What are the implications if a majority of an electorate hold biased or unfavourable views about certain groups?

For example, a recent poll by Forum Research indicates that Muslims, First Nations people, South Asians, Asians, Jews and blacks are the most likely to suffer bias by fellow Canadians, in that order. How do our elected officials ensure the general public understands and supports the need to devote resources promoting equity and inclusion in our society?

Besides, politicians themselves will sometimes base their own arguments on perceptions alone.

Take the city councillor in Smiths Falls, Ont., who is arguing vigorously against a guaranteed-income pilot program. In an interview with CBC Radio, Dawn Quinn challenged the mayor’s support for the program by saying she personally notices local residents purchasing several cups of coffee every morning at Tim Hortons instead of making their own. She concluded, therefore, that such unemployed workers are unreliable spendthrifts who shouldn’t receive any further government support. That’s hardly scientific.

Let’s make certain that our new year’s resolutions include a commitment that we acknowledge our perceptions while checking for facts and for truth. This will be critical for those of us hoping to contribute to a sound collective future in 2017 and beyond.

Amira Elghawaby is the communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).