Whether you sit on the left or the right, you subscribe to the tone of social media. But there’s a very good reason why we never get anywhere.
Before Donald Trump became president of the United States, I was a person of extremes.
It is my instinct, made worse by the fact that I have been a journalist for a long time now: gray is boring, gray doesn’t catch people’s attention, there is seldom a story in gray. But since Trump and the way he has changed the mood and the narrative of the world, I have been practicing moderation. And for good reason. I think our intemperate and excessively dramatic way of dealing with what is going on around us is not only making it worse, but making it happen in the first place.
Let me explain by quoting liberally from an article one of my favorite columnists, The New York Times’ David Brooks, wrote not that long ago. He started his piece by telling his readers that he had been at the receiving end of some fury and hatred on social media.
His crime, according to his critics, had been to quote research that showed that although school shootings were causing a lot of victims, the amount had actually gone down compared to some years before. Even establishing this was wrong, his trolls told him, because it gave nuance to the debate, which was, apparently, the same as not taking the victims seriously.
By quoting facts, he was “draining moral urgency and providing comfort to the status quo” and that was unforgivable.
Just raging about what is wrong with the world and not being open to solutions … freezes action.
The problem with this, Brooks wrote, was that this attitude doesn’t solve the problems people say they feel passionate about.
On the contrary. Just raging about what is wrong with the world and not being open to solutions, which are often complicated and require balanced and nuanced negotiations with your opposite numbers, freezes action.
To make a problem seem massively intractable is to inspire separation, building a wall between you and the problem. “… most great social reforms have happened in moments of optimism, not moments of pessimism, in moments of encouraging progress, not in moments of perceived threat,” Brooks wrote.
After which, he wondered whether it was a good thing that activism now seems to consist of “hating your foe with sufficient vigor,” while “being apocalyptic.” It is a good question, I think, and one we should spend some time thinking about. Because the problem is this: if you write everything in CAPITALS, where do you go from there? If you portray left-wingers “as hate-filled nihilists who will destroy the nation” or right-wingers as “idiots” who are “mind-blowingly stupid,” what else is there to say? And more to the point: how are you ever going to get back to the negotiating table with the people you have just abused that way?
Because however much you dislike it, society needs its members to talk to each other if things are to change. Yelling is a lovely way of blowing off steam, but after that, the real work has to start. And that requires listening to others, compromising and moderation. Sorry to burst your bubble like that.
Society needs its members to talk to each other if things are to change. Yelling is a lovely way of blowing off steam, but after that, the real work has to start.
It seems that everywhere I look now, whatever happens, is written in CAPITALS. Everything is FASCISM or, if you are on the other side of the political debate, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS.
Every drama we see on television is dystopian and a lot of stories online and in the papers tell us that the END IS NIGH! With an EXCLAMATION MARK, of course.
The problem is that if you dramatize everything to within an inch of its life, this flattens out every other emotion. It turns us into people who are anxious 24/7, angry too, and ready to pull out the knife and use it. And because it is impossible to keep that going for longer than a few weeks, lethargy follows.
The world is going to shit? Oh, well, let’s turn the other way and enjoy it while it lasts.
A few weeks ago, an extremely bored-looking Ke$ha (a singer who made her name by putting “glitter on her titties” and proving that women too can be yobbos) gave an interview to The Guardian. In it, she whinged a lot about the “trauma” of her legal battle with her producer and told the journalist that her “rebellion” now consists of “not caring about anybody else.” And seeing that “the world is going to burn anyway, I might as well have a good time.”
First of all: grow up, little girl, and get out of your own navel for five minutes.
Secondly: this is not how you become “a safe place for people.” What you are doing is dancing on the volcano. You are showing that you don’t give a shit about the world, or people, and that you are too lazy and too indolent to do anything but “brushing your teeth with Jim Beam.”
Thankfully, I am not the only person fed up with this kind of attitude.
In his new book Cosmic Chronicles, our unsurpassed astronomer-at-large, Fred Watson, wrote a few lines I want to leave you with today. After raving about “the way scientific curiosity can draw extraordinary feats of engineering out of the minds of humans,” Watson allowed himself an almost uncharacteristic moment of irritation and annoyance:
“There is a dangerous enthusiasm for our vestigial tribalism, which means we have to maintain expensive armed forces. We also have a propensity for trashing the environment that sustains us … some of us have already written off our planet as a lost cause … looking at the heavens for salvation … talk of colonial fleets is bound to raise false expectations among an already escapist public. Such ideas also legitimize our lethargy when it comes to making our own planet a more sustainable and secure world. Why bother, if we’re all off to Mars?”
As is usual with Watson, it is a thought that inspires further thinking. Let’s honor the great man by taking a few minutes to actually do that, shall we? SHALL WE?!