Everybody is shouting; nobody is listening. After three months of social distancing lockdowns comes the social media meltdowns.
I am often scanning through social media pages of once moderate friends, thinking to myself: “Oh dear!”. Images crafted to promote outrage, amplification of hate speech, spreading of half-truths used to be the tools of zealots, anti-vaxxers and raging activists … now it is called “engagement” on social media. Just when I thought intolerance within closed communities could not get any worse, it has become the social norm. People who have different views now need to be “fixed”.
I get worried when I hear groups saying how others need to be “fixed”. Many have tried to fix me. I’d rather have leaders inspiring others to change than zealots out to fix those different from them. But we are presently in a world fixated with fixing those they can’t tolerate.
What’s causing this madness?
Social media has never really been civil and as more engagement has drifted into closed, online communities and thematic groups (too often hotbeds of hatred where the hoods can come off), the divisiveness and refusal to listen to other ideas has grown. Before the lockdowns, we always had reminders and opportunities to practice public civility (giving way to someone when boarding the train to work, waiting for a table at a restaurant …) where we were grounded with the Other. In three short months of isolation, that civility seems to have become unhinged. In three short months, intolerance and outrage have become the weeds wiping out those seedlings of civil cohabitation. The Other now needs to be fixed.
The times when we do actually go out have been unpleasant. There are no smiles or pleasantries; it is as if my face covering is hiding my (assumed) resting bitch-face. I’m trying to learn to smile with my eyes but I fear I am just becoming ‘creepy’.
I fear the precautionary architects of the COVID-19 lockdowns underestimated the consequences of societal breakdown. People cannot simply be caged up for months in a state of fear and uncertainty, having lost jobs and subjected to body-counts on their TV screen side columns. Not only have stress, anxiety and mental health issues become severe, they are often manifesting themselves in social intolerance, outrage and hate towards those who disagree.
Revolutions have succeeded with less fuel on the fire and most countries presently lack leaders who can inspire. Whatever kindling of dissent a country had before mid-March, 2020, they have had three months to soak in more kerosene. These societal fires, from Beirut to Minneapolis, Santiago to Hongkong, are now torching up even before the economic and financial consequences of the lockdowns bite. As one protester in Santiago said: The rich brought the virus to Chile and the poor, doing the work on the street, are dying. The coronavirus was never simply a health pandemic and I don’t know how many times I have had to warn people about the dire need for proper risk management.
Unfortunately the political revolutions that will surely follow are coming at a time of heightened intolerance, illogic and polarisation. Think prolonged civil wars and community deadlock. After the Revolution comes the Terror.
In the United States, as a general election approaches and its president practices the art of division rather than healing, the polarised intolerance has never been so severe. MAGAs are mocked and attacked for protesting in the streets against the coronavirus lockdown. A week later, scorn is poured on the SJWs for breaking curfews for BlackLivesMatter protests. Neither side, in their outrage, is willing to see the hypocrisy of their own attacks, and neither side is willing to tolerate moderates who question these contradictions.
The Logic of Intolerance
In situations of intolerance, logic and reason are lost. Every side only listens to their gurus and bans dissenters from their social media tribes. And if every side of an issue is right, then any public policy decision is going to be completely wrong to a large number of people. Consensus politics, common ground, social pacts … what were we thinking??? Our world of participatory engagement has morphed into “managed outrage activism”.
The blanket intolerance of other ideas or people puts enormous stress on rational thinking. For example, in the US police forces have become more militarised as the amount of guns in society proliferates. As American social justice warriors demand to abolish or defund police forces (who merely prop up the “fascist state”), their campaign of trust erosion is working. Minneapolis will dismantle their police force. Fewer police forces and less budget, at a time of growing economic and social stresses will most likely mean greater vulnerability for women and minorities in inner cities … and more people buying guns. Where is the social justice logic here?
This is the logic of intolerance. When society, fed on amplified outrage activism, reacts against something they refuse to tolerate, the solutions are often more intolerable and unjust. With every movement being filmed and broadcast on social media to captive audiences, there is a more fertile market for managed outrage. But because we are only simplistically sweeping out what we cannot tolerate, we have not got the capacity to analyse the consequences of alternatives.
This blogsite was founded on highlighting the logic of intolerance on environmental health risks. When environmentalists ban nuclear energy and consequentially produce more CO2 emissions, when organic lobbyists campaign against GMOs and crop protection tools resulting in less sustainable agriculture, when naturopaths demand restrictions on pharmaceutical companies, plastic PPE and disinfecting chemicals that our healthcare system relies on, we can see how the Risk-Monger can spend more than a decade now fighting the consequences of this illogic.
A zealot is guided by intolerance, feeling ennobled by the cause and not bothered by the consequences of simplistic solutions. Their campaigns are based on a vilified outrage against others deemed “unworthy” allowing them to justify the most irrational actions. Coming out of the COVID-19 lockdown and into the societal meltdown, have we all become irrational, illogical zealots?
We need some time to find our civil feet again, but the managed outrage activists are moving too fast.
How do you “fix” the logic of intolerance. One word: Trust.
If a leader is trusted, decisions are respected. If I trust a person who disagrees with me, I am more likely to listen and to reconsider. I use a product or operate a machine if I trust it. I can only make a decision or take a risk if I trust the information, the people or the process.
The main driver behind today’s intolerance and chaos is not a coronavirus or a racist police officer’s knee; it is the consequence of the breakdown of community trust. We don’t trust our authorities, experts or leaders; we trust those like us (our social media gurus, members of our tribes). I have referred to this as “blockchain trust“. Peer ratings, citizen panels and social media referrals have more influence on us than facts, experts and experience. For those campaigning to dismantle police forces, they believe being policed by their peers will mean safer streets.
In order to “fix” this intolerance we need to restore trust in authority. So how do we do that?
Good question. I would like to say by returning to a culture of inspiring others to build and create but we are presently in a leadership vacuum. We will have to go back to the classrooms where young people get their early inspirations. We have to re-examine our governance tools.
The EU governance philosophy (following from the 2001 White Paper) was built on trying to slow the loss of public trust but, crafted before the age of social media, it has done anything but that. This is something I have been looking at with my (almost completed) post-COVID-19 Blueprint on risk management. One suggestion is to remove one of the main policy distrust drivers: the precautionary mindset that undermines our capacity to manage uncertainties. By demanding zero risk and 100% certainty, policy decisions have been built on distrust of science, technology and human innovation. Rather than trying to solve problems through ingenuity and innovation, the precautionary mindset demands, as a resolution tool, that we stop, ban or disallow (with no concern for the consequences).
Uncertain about nuclear energy risks? Shut down all nuclear reactors. Worried about contracting a coronavirus? Lock an entire society in their homes. Outraged by instances of police brutality? Abolish or defund the police. There, we fixed it … no need to try other means to solve the problems.
Now if you excuse me, this irrational zealot has to go back to “fixing” those precautionistas.