Living in a toxic world

March 1st, 2020 in Behaviour. Tags: , , ,

Do you ever think that life used to feel so simple, but not now? That somehow things are more complex, insane and toxic than they used to be?

Do you ever feel a little overwhelmed by it all?

Perhaps it’s a product of getting older, but I don’t think that’s all it is.

“Lord, what fools these mortals be”

Like Shakespeare’s Puck, we know people can do bad things, or fall short of doing good. Things like:

  • The global gap between the rich and poor, which was narrowing for a while, is now widening again, but well-off people in countries with a christian heritage often don’t really care. It seems the west is getting fatter while many others struggle.
  • There are more than 30 million people in slavery worldwide, more than at the time of William Wilberforce, but most of us aren’t willing to change our buying habits, pay a little more for products produced justly, or walk past a dodgy bargain.

But lately I seem to be seeing a different type of human failing that seems more sinister.

Lack of compassion and loss of community

You can see it in the way a supposedly christian country like the US, or a nominally christian country like Australia, treat the poor and struggling. Refugees are demonised even though they are mostly simply seeking safety for their families. The poor are screwed down to the poverty line and below under the pretence that they are totally responsible for their unfortunate situation, and the economic system and government policies have nothing to do with it. Where we once expressed christian compassion (whether genuine or just cultural) now the attitude seems to be “suck it up, loser!”

Our sense of community seems to have taken a hit, and selfishness rules, OK? Governments and communities used to work for the common good, but now it’s more likely they are working for self.

Polarisation and tribalism

It seems people are becoming more polarised, and express themselves in uglier and more aggressive ways, especially on the internet. Our politics and media are more polarised. Too often the tribe we belong to determines our ideas and values more than the truth does. One way tribalism is being manifested is in “toxic nationalism”.

Triviality

I don’t know whether it is a cause or an effect, but it seems we can so easily immerse ourselves in the trivial while remaining blind to important things. The gossip magazines keep inventing stories about the supposed trials and tribulations of the royals or some “celebrity”, helping readers to ignore the genuine difficulties of so many people at home and abroad.

The music videos that play at my gym are full of false and trivial images and values. Facebook pushes the mundane at us. Too often people are not in the moment because they are paying more attention to their phones. At restaurants, the whole table may be phoning rather than talking.

The internet, one of the greatest inventions of the modern age, is used much more for spam, dishonest marketing, porn and crime than it is used for good.

So many people seem over-confident of their own opinions. They can have opinions about things that are actually matters of fact, and somehow their lack of expertise makes no difference. Who needs experts these days?

The dumbing down of politics

Short attention spans and tribalism mean that there is little substance in much of politics these days. It suits some politicians and parties to keep us all dumb, trivial and tribal, otherwise we’d quickly see though their lack of substance and ethics.

We observe some politicians telling lies, behaving corruptly, mistreating women, and telling more lies, and yet so many keep believing they will do good for us and keep voting for them. Authoritarian politicians make us feel scared, of foreigners, or Muslim extremists, or refugees, or a loss of freedom.

We trust scientific knowledge on medicine, computers, technology, etc, but despite science telling us the world is on a disaster course because of climate change, we continue to choose to keep on down that destructive path, creating immense problems for the next generations.

The rich control the media

It is obvious that so much of our media is untrustworthy and biased, serving the ends of a small subset of the rich and powerful, but we keep reading and watching … and mostly believing them.

And the rich know how to exploit the media, and us. The same people who told us lies for years that there was no clear connection between smoking and lung cancer (even though they knew there was) are now telling us lies about climate change, but many still believe them.

And it seems that politicians either believe the untruthful media, or follow the same line because they think it will get the re-elected, or maybe they want to look after rich friends.

A sad conclusion

All this sounds a little extreme. I feel that myself. Yet events in Australia and around the world reinforce to me that these things are all happening. I feel sure you can think of examples too.

The result of all this is we don’t know what is true any more and who to trust, and we suffer from compassion fatigue and become blasé about injustice.

Originally, I planned this post to give a short rundown of some obvious craziness in the world, and focus more on how christians should respond to this world. But as I tried to pull together all these disparate but unsettling elements of postmodern life, I came to see that we need to look more at the causes.

Sinister machine?

Reading and observation suggest there are a number of elements to how we have got to where we are. Here are some of the tactics. See if you can identify these tactics in recent events in your country (it shouldn’t be hard).

Fake news

This tactic is as old as George Orwell’s 1984. Tell a big enough lie often enough and confidently enough, and people can tend to believe it. If you can’t get away with a total lie, distort the truth. There are so many things that it isn’t easy for ordinary people to check, and if the media join in the fake news, it will be believed by many. In addition, ignore the truth, distract questions away from matters of truth to the matters below.

Slogans

Make an evocative slogan. It can be meaningless (“Make America great again”), misleading (‘Take Back Control’) or over-simplistic (“Stop the boats”), it doesn’t really matter, as long as it makes people feel they want something different. These slogans soon lose any meaning they had and become merely identifiers (known as “empty-signifiers”), but they will continue to serve their purpose.

Demonising

Create an enemy, someone your supporters can just know is evil. Better still, demonise your opponents and critics. Call them names (“lying Ted”) so that you don’t have to answer their criticisms, and your supporters will learn to disparage, dismiss and even hate without really knowing why..

Identity

If you do all this well, you can build an identity, a tribe, that your followers will be committed to, regardless of how you behave and what you say. Even if your policies actually harm them, most of them will stay loyal.

Fear

Above all else, build a sense of fear. Get people afraid of the other – immigrants or refugees, Jews or Muslims, people who think differently. Recent events show that the fears don’t have to be real to be effective. In most western countries crime is less than it used to be, but you can easily make people feel it is getting worse, that they are threatened, and they should feel afraid. Or make them fearful of terrorists even though home-grown murder is much more prevalent. Make them scared that someone is coming to take their money or their guns, their lives or their freedom, even if the threat is nebulous or exaggerated. Create a sense of “moral panic”. It works!

Authority

If you have done all this well, you can then project an image of strength and security. Only you can manage the threat, though you may need to change the law a little to achieve it. This works a treat when the threat is fake, because you don’t actually have to do anything when you gain power – the threat won’t eventuate, and you can claim it was your heroic policies that kept everyone safe.

Control

If you want, you can even start to extend your control. Change the laws (like change the rules to become President for life, as has happened in many countries over the years), put your allies into positions of power, especially in the judiciary. Make discriminatory laws that build on people’s fears and diminish your opposition’s opportunity to win back power. Make it harder for opponents to vote, or gerrymander so their vote is less effective. It’s been done so often, but it can be done more easily if you have done the above work well.

A conspiracy?

Is this all too conspiratorial for you? Or is there in fact a conspiracy by some of the rich and powerful to control us in these ways? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

In the next post I’ll look at how christians might respond to all this.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

9 Comments

  1. In the next post I’ll look at how christians might respond to all this.
    I’ve been thinking about the subject of religion recently(from a heathen viewpoint !), and I’ve come to the conclusion that Christianity is a lot like politics, there are Right Wing Christians (and their colleagues the Jews), and Left Wing Christians.
    For the RW Christians, religion is all about themselves and how they personally can get to Heaven by living a pious life as directed by the Ten Commandments. There is nothing in the TC about helping others, so a lot of Right Wingers don’t bother, and there is nothing there about not getting rich, so a lot of Right Wingers do that too.
    To them, although they call themselves Christians (excluding the Jews here), Jesus was probably a dangerous socialist who can’t be trusted, and his quote about a camel passing through the eye of a needle and rich people certainly shows he was on the wrong track as far as they are concerned.
    Left wingers on the other hand (I hope you don’t mind that description being applied to you) more closely follow the words of Jesus and believe that the whole human race is the family and should be looked after.
    The Right Wingers always seem to end up in politics saying that it’s cruel to the unemployed to raise Newstart and it’s kinder in the long run to refugees to leave some of them in limbo forever to to “save” others from people smugglers.
    The Left Wingers on the other hand end up in demos against climate change or running soup kitchens.
    So really I think you have to treat the Right Wing Christians as imposters, they will never help anyone apart from themselves and they stand in the way of the sort of reforms that you wish to see. Interesting to see that the Labor Party started out with a lot of conservative Catholics in it (DLP), but mostly seem to be atheist or agnostic now, as are The Greens, the most Left party in the country.
    Could a Left Wing Christian party succeed in Australian politics ? I don’t know and I don’t see one on the horizon. Without such a force in government I can’t see a lot of progress being made to the social agenda.
    The other thing is that when you say we are becoming more selfish, things are getting very tough in the economy, house prices, rents and bills are rising and wages are not keeping up. Most people are struggling to stay afloat. Of course there is a lot of money being made by the rich, but they are the government’s mates so they don’t get touched.

  2. Hi, thanks for that comment. I certainly don’t mind being described as “left wing”, for that’s accurate. And I agree with most of what you say – I think for a “heathen” you show a lot of insight! 🙂 I think Jesus might say “You are not far from the kingdom of God!” I particularly chuckled over the words “imposter” and “dangerous socialist” .
    I have three comments.
    (1) Modern right wing christians don’t rely on the TC to get to heaven, but on salvation by faith.
    (2) There is a grouping of “left-wing” christians – Common Grace – which seeks to influence christians and politicians, but it doesn’t aim to be elected. We strongly support Common Grace.
    (3) Yes, as the gap between rich and not-rich widens, there’ll be less people who can afford to be generous. But there are still a lot who could afford, but don’t.
    Thanks again for these thoughts. I am much encouraged by them.

  3. What is “salvation by faith” ? Is it mere belief or does it require some other actions ? Thanks.

  4. Well, it is understood differently by different christians. Here follows some theological definitions. 🙁
    Catholic belief always had elements of faith – both belief (intellectual assent) and trust (personal commitment) – supported by some actions. But by the time of the Reformation, this had become somewhat corrupted and the church was in a sense selling salvation. So the Reformers reacted against this and taught a “pure faith” of salvation by God’s grace (= unmerited love or favour) alone, received through faith, no merit or good works required. The passage in Ephesians 2:8-10 supports this understanding.
    This has been the mainstay of Protestant thinking ever since, and is behind the teachings of evangelists like Billy Graham and others. However it is obvious that the Bible also teaches the necessity of living in certain ways that care for others (e.g Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:31-46). Protestants generally explain these verses away in ways that allow the “faith alone” doctrine to stand, but there is a small but growing movement that says we should see there are two sides to the question of faith vs works (= good deeds).
    So right wing christians will generally hold to faith alone, which is one way they can justify not caring so much about people and the world, whereas more left wing christians will generally try to take both sides of the Bible teaching seriously.
    Thus my view is that “salvation” (the gift of life in the age to come) is a free gift of God that we cannot earn, but nevertheless to receive it we need to do more than just have faith, we need to respond by following Jesus’ teachings as best we can as well.

  5. Interesting question. Obviously to get the best answer you’d have to ask a Jew. But my understanding is that they saw their relationship with God as arising out of their being in a covenant relationship with him. The Ten Commandments are only a small part of the entire OT law, which was based on an agreement between God and them (“I will be your God and you will be my people”). This covenant required the Jews to follow a strict set of laws, but the basis was still God’s mercy and not their efforts alone. Christians think Jesus is the next step in that covenant, and the Jews should follow him (not necessarily become christians, but rather messianic Jews). But it is all based on God offering his side of the uneven covenant freely, not simply because of merit. It’s complicated.

  6. Hi Eric
    I have just stumbled upon your article “Sermons – Not how we learn best?”
    This is brilliant and speaks to me so much. I am 67 years young and I was away from what I call ‘organised religion in a church’ for over 40 years although interestingly I was never away from God and God was certainly never away from me.
    In the last 15 years I have grown closer to Jesus and, with my wife Annie, I now lead a new church plant called “Coffee Shop Sunday” – Strap line – Meeting God in an ordinary place.
    We operate from a Costa Coffee Shop here in Coventry , England. The Coffee Shop is on a retail park and our worship gatherings are intentionally contemporary with no sermon. We started on 1st December three months ago with 22 people and we already have between 50 and 60 at each gathering including Coffee Shop customers who stay with us.
    I’d love to tell you more – can I add you to my email update list for Coffee Shop Sunday? – If so let me have your email address and I will forward more information about how we operate.
    Every blessing.
    Trevor Gay.

    • Hi Trevor, it’s great to hear from you, and to hear about your ministry in the coffee shop. And good to know you found my page helpful.
      I’d love to hear more, and I’ll email you. I find it interesting that in most professions, people do their initial study, but then learn on the job, with only occasional training courses. But in the church (the Protestant church at any rate) christians apparently need to hear lectures every week of our lives and we never graduate from that! I think there are reasons why that is the case, but they are not good reasons!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *