How did we let this happen? Once the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis passes, we will need to make a serious reassessment of our risk management tools and capacities. This pandemic has shown how woefully ill-equipped the authorities of most Western democracies were in the art of managing risks and protecting the most vulnerable in society. This three-part series aims to establish a blueprint for a future risk management world equipped to handle the challenges of the 21st century. Part 1 looked at how the precautionary principle failed as a risk management policy tool. Part 2 will be divided into three parts: first looking at the docilian decline: how individuals and policymakers had become receptive and docile in their attitude toward risk. The second section looks at the four factors giving rise to this risk-averse “docilian mindset” over the last two decades and how it unravelled with the COVID-19 coronavirus. In the final section, I will put forward how the societal dialogue process needs to readjust to establish a more risk resilient culture. Part 3 will establish the groundwork for a proper future risk management process.
Last month I coined the term “docilian” to refer to risk-averse individuals who demand their authorities deliver complete safety and certainty. They expect nothing less than zero risk and given their privilege and affluence, these demands have changed the way Western societies manage risks and benefits. Fed on fear generated in their social media tribes, docilians have been unwilling to accept any risks and are unable to manage hazards or threats by themselves.
Docilians feel they have rights without responsibilities, entitlement without commitment and expect benefits without risks or costs. Any problem they and their social media tribes face is due to someone else (who must be made to go away).
Gathering within closed social media echo-chambers, docilians can easily lose objectivity. By selecting the information (“facts”) they choose to hear and believe, it is easy for large populations to filter out reasonable explanations and confirm ridiculous biases through constant repetition and emotional fear-mongering.
How does social media allow for such zealot cult fundamentalism to spread? Essential to this strategy are the gurus preaching a gospel of outrage and telling frightened groups what they want to believe (and then selling them a solution they need to buy). These are new religions with willing tribes of (docilian) followers. I recently analysed a speech by Vandana Shiva showing how each word was crafted to give her tribe the outrage they crave.
The relentless rise of the anti-vaxx movement is a good case study in docilian distortion via social media. At times of high vulnerability (eg, parents with newborns), people seek reassuring information. If a fear is perceived, eg, that vaccines may be dangerous to children, a parent would look to the Internet for guidance. (They no longer seek trust and affirmation via experts like paediatricians.) Google will sort each parental inquiry on vaccination according to the algorithmic history and particular search-term vocabulary and it would be quite possible these parents would arrive on a social media page providing vaccination horror stories and reassuring information on alternatives to vaccines. These pages filter out any challenging facts and reinforce community trust with other fears and sources of outrage (beware of Big Pharma greed, government collusion…) and a denigration of the “other” (those who subject their children to vaccines are referred to as unthinking “sheeple”). If you think a mass pandemic would penetrate this docilian dogma, anti-vaxx pages today are filled with conspiracy theories on 5G, Bill Gates and the Chinese/WHO plot to destroy the West (plus ads for helpful supplements that allegedly protect their followers from COVID-19). See my anti-vaxx series for more on how smart their manipulation has become.
Docilians are untelligent.
Untelligence arrives when emotion and anecdote determine our information sources. It should not be equated with stupidity but rather a willingness to accept misinformation that is emotionally persuasive. Social media has created a massive array of poles of persuasion – a veritable marketplace of beliefs and ideologies touted as truth easily accessible, personalised and private. The echo-chambers are reserved for the believers while the rest of us go on about our business unaware (in our own echo-chambers among people who think like us).
One of the most fascinating things about living in the Age of Stupid is that without any sense of objectivity or critical engagement, without trust in facts or scientific authority, when I am surrounded only by people who agree with me (and applaud me), how would I really know that I’m not the stupid one. Maybe the anti-vaxxers setting fire to 5G towers to stop the coronavirus are right and I am part of the pro-science (“sheeple”) tribe (bought and paid for by some “poison cartel”)? The point is: How would I know otherwise if I only surround myself with people who agree with me?
The docilian volume is played loudly on the policy/political front. Regulators see their job as reflecting the will of their population (rather than delivering what populations need) … why cigarettes and cars were never banned despite the death tolls.
We no longer engage in policy decision processes but expect others to agree with us (the strategically assembled consensus). If these generalised, mysterious “others” don’t agree (if they are not on “our” side), we block them on our information feeds (they no longer exist, dismissed as “fake news”, bracketed out). If those “others” representing ideas we refuse to accept win, we feel we can refuse to accept a leader or policy as our own and seek shelter in our social media echo-chambers. As social media takes over as the main information source, there has been a push to political extremes, a melting of the centre and a rise in intolerance. It can be argued that such polarisation is common in any situation where new communications tools are exploited by political opportunists.
In this risk-averse docilian mindset, precaution is the sole management tool they demand from their risk managers (the authorities). Precaution implies everything they don’t like or want will simply go away. Someone told them there are glyphosate residues in their breakfast cereal? So ban all pesticides and stop conventional farming. A Swedish teenager puts her chilling voice to climate change? So abandon the capitalist system, international trade and finance. Pharmaceutical companies (a.k.a. the cancer industry) sells poisons that make us sick? So we need to embrace naturopathy (and lemon juice to cure cancer).
Making something or someone “go away” via precaution does not fix the problem, it does not address any consequences or seek to prevent potential benefit losses. As said in an earlier article, precaution is a two-dimensional principle: it is what a two-year-old expects when he grunts: “No!” Over the last two decades of precautionaria, our risk management capacity has become infantile. It was in no way mature enough to manage the recent coronavirus outbreak.
Just Stop Everything
Innovation, science and technology all imply risk-taking, uncertainty and potential hazards. For the last two decades, docilian pressure has said “No!” to developments of new technologies including: new seed breeding techniques for better farming; next generation nuclear reactors to address climate concerns; new antibiotics and medical technologies to advance healthcare; better pesticides and plant protection technologies.
Worse, the litany of blanket precautionary bans were sending us back to older, less sustainable technologies as activists infiltrated the policy arena. Coal was replacing nuclear energy in Germany, older less efficient foliar insecticides replaced neonicotinoid seed treatments (killing larger numbers of bees), and food waste was increasing with reductions in plastic packaging. It got to the point where some extremist docilians were succeeding in removing expertise from the policy process, replacing them with citizen panels and assemblies (people like them).
Docilians felt safe in their confirmation bias cocoons: safe enough to demand the end of conventional agriculture; safe enough to call for the end of capitalism, trade and global finance. Were it not for the disruptive nature of the COVID-19 coronavirus, they might have succeeded.
What factors over the last two decades have taken us into such a position that outrageous demands to put an end to finance, trade, science and agriculture were gaining such popular attention? The next section will address this.