My Viewpoint

I would like to explore how hypertext can be used in cyberspace as a means of presenting conflictual viewpoints on a controversial issue, the seal hunt. Ethical, epistemological and methodological issues are inextricably linked. (Coffey et al 1996) Values can and do affect how we acquire knowledge and how we construct knowledge claims. The researcher-author's values impermeates data in subtle ways.

Hypertext can provide flexible interaction with the data and encourage a nonlinear reading of the data. The active reader becomes the author by re-ordering data thereby producing a personal interpretation from the hypertext resources. The reader becomes a navigator choosing his/her own route. Distinctions between 'data', 'analysis', 'interpretation' are blurred. Nonlinearity and the endless possibilities of links can be its greatest strength. It can also be its greatest challenge, its Minotaur.

The seal hunt debate includes a multitude of divergent viewpoints with argruments that have changed and shifted over the decades. In the 1980s as the seal protest shifted the focus of their concerns from cruelty to animals to moral issues of the extinction of species and exploitation of wildlife, it became apparent that biological investigations, the gathering of data on populations would not resolve the matter. (Wenzel: 79) Disagreements over seal populations, their effect on cod populations, quantities of seal killed are practically impossible to resolve as each group: pro-sealing governments and anti-sealing activists discredit each others' statistics. Indeed the ability of science to establishing accurate populations of sea mammals and fish is under severe scrutiny with issues such as the whale hunt, the cod and salmon fishery.

Since the Enlightenment, scientific reason and logic as evidence of a truth claim have outweighed rhetoric, persuasion, opinion and ornamentation. The latter were relegated to the softer disciplines such as history or literature at the margins of legitimate scholarship. This had created a false dichotomy of objective observer/ researcher/author capable of making unbiased, ideologically-neutral truth claims about the observed. Blurred boundaries between disciplines has led to a re-evaluation of rhetoric, narratives, discourse as valid methods of truth construction.

While it is unlikely that globalization can be prevented, it is possible to seek solutions for a just, sustainable globalization. Issues related to the sustainable use of the world's resources are intricately linked to issues of the extremes of poverty and wealth. (Gitlin 2000) The global ecological crisis of the contemporary period threatens the health of people, animals, plants and the ecosystem itself. Since the 1980s the extinction of species, one of the most visible effects of a discontinuation of a life system, has become a focus of environmentalists.

The Chernobyl catastrophe, revealed how environmental risks have become the predominant product, not just an unpleasant, manageable side-effect, of industrial society. Beck reinterprets this period as reflexive modernity or risk society evolved beyond its classical industrial society. In ‘classical industrial society, the ‘logic' of wealth production dominates the ‘logic of risk production, in the risk society this is reversed.' (Beck 1993: 12)

It has been described as a period when the categorical imperative has been supplanted by an ecological imperative. We may be forced to consider universal values to protect against those forces that threaten the sustainability of life on earth. Oppositional viewpoints are most exagerrated when they are based on these ideological clashes such as environmental issues, nature's intrinsic value and animal rights (Fischer 1996:166) or the appropriate level of riskiness for the fulfillment of the good life (Fischer 1996:177)

Underlying this ecological crisis is the dramatic shift in power from democratically elected governments to the culture of international economic policy. Market-driven globalization is neither democratic nor accountable. ( Stiglitz 2000) Unlimited financial resources allow industries to purchase the services of a wide range of experts capable of image management and damage control. Scientific and legal facts are used to defend, impose or to prevent changes.

Individual national governments are not powerful enough, nor do they wish to, stem the flow of a new global economy which promises, and is delivering, selective prosperity. Controversial issues, such as risk management, that require radical changes in public policy can be suppressed or at least avoided and postponed for the sake of political expediency. Knowledge can be used as an instrument of change by working within existing legal, political and scientific systems. But knowledge producers (professionals, academics, scientists, lawyers) who are would-be reformers can be overwhelmed by lack of support, (funding), inertia and groupthink. (Gitlin 2000) Knowledge can be a powerful instrument for change or it can be simply used by the powerful to resist change.

Poststructuralist, postmodernist, feminist and postcolonialist have contributed to reappraisals of relations between knowledge and power. It has led to a more critical examination of of the way the social worlds are narrated. How data about society and culture is collected and analysed is questioned whereas it was once taken for granted. ( Coffey et al 1996) This leads to questions about knowledge itself. Scientific knowledge, which had attained a quasi-religious status in truth construction, has been challenged and some, like Beck, even consider it to be dethroned.

In spite of this, scientific facts are still used as the weightiest of arguments even by those who harbour doubts about the possibility of constructing facts that are value-free and not subjective. "It is easier to agree on some brute data than on basic moral claims..." (Buchstein. 1996:75) especially those value-laden issues related to the environment and quality of life. Ignoring, denying and dismissing these challenges to the objective veracity of scientific truth has not only been an option, it is the preferred choice of a majority.

The level of public concern over the global ecological crisis leads to questioning of Big science, industry and government. Protest movements erupt. These citizen protestors provoke social commotion and energize the impetus for change. A professor at New York State university feels that strident, unruly protests can precipitate public debate and provide the reformers with a larger and more attentive audience. They confront and disrupt even the largest international industries.(Gitlin 2000)

Gitlin identifies two types of activists: the moralistic (often younger) "outsiders" and the reform-minded "insiders". "Outsiders" motivated by a sense of moral injustice use civil disobedience to confront and obstruct those who wield power. "Insiders" are the professionals, academics and lawyers who are able to argue and negotiate change from within. Gitlin feels that when these passionate "outsiders" can successfully open public debate they can help revamp and even expand public agendas. This can strengthen the ability of reformers to argue and negotiate change. Loud demonstrations may polarize opinions but they also awaken the apathetic.

Citizens' reactions to (environmental) risks affect public policy. Participatory democracy makes room for diverging viewpoints. But there is danger that the protestors recklessly oversimplify and distort complex issues. This is the case of animal rights' groups who effectively put an end to the seal hunt. They created "environmental refugees" in small indigenous communities by ending a way of life dependent on the hunt.

Animal rights advocates range from those who wish to put an end to cruelty to animals to radical groups who prefer people over animals. There may be varying degrees of tolerance for levels of violence or lawbreaking as legitimate means of disruption. Some are sentimental radicals with emotionally charged ideological viewpoints.

The public remained convinced of the immorality of the sealhunt inspite of the revelations of the body of experts, the Committee on Seals and Sealing. This team of experts created by the Canadian government in response to the 1980s animal rights anti-sealing protest, attempted to use logical, objective, scientific facts to prove that clubbing pups was humane and quotas were not dangerously large. The anti-sealers won the public debate through the more effective tools of rhetoric and photographs of the adorable seals. (Hencke 1985:191) Scientific knowledge confronts ideology.

Knowledge makers (the experts) themselves are under question as to the nature of their own research. The superiority of scientific "facts" over textual production and the "reality" of the natural world over narrative accounts of the social world have been effectively challenged. (Lynch and Woolgar 1990; Lutz and Collins 1993)

Experts (academics, scientists, other professionals) rather than assuming the authoritative voice could assume the role of facilitator in participatory democracy. (Fischer 1995. Evaluating Public Policy) Citizens groups and protestors may be loosely organised around a cause. Facilitator-experts could help establish appropriate questions.


© Maureen Flynn-Burhoe 2000. Last updated web design (not content) February 2002.
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