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”.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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..
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.