These days, public discussion has a frenzied quality, full of reflex responses and aggression that make it hard for people to see clearly what’s really going on and what direction to head in. Tim Gray FRSA suggests we may need to kick back a bit if we are to respond to the challenges that are making us to angry.
Commenters talk about a ‘post-factual’ world, with echo chambers and opinion bubbles where we can engage with those who agree with us but leap on those who do not. People make angry outbursts that don’t make much sense. Others take up the refrain and defend them passionately. There’s an epidemic of tribalism – fuelled by social media and 24 hour news – with factions like ‘leftists’ and ‘Islamists’ being imagined into existence as armies of clones and blamed for the world’s ills. Our minds are under siege and desperately trying to cope. I sometimes call it ‘mental inflammation’, drawing parallels with asthma and panic attacks. A constant background level of stress and irritation puts us on a hair trigger for one more thing to exceed our coping limit and cause a big reaction. When it does, we’re desperate to make the source of the overload go away and will use all sorts of words (and possibly actions) in an attempt to do it.
That background stress is high because we’re living in a time between stories. Many of the ways we were taught our lives would work, the structures of society and our established ways of seeing things, are changing and breaking down. That may sound abstract, but it has very practical consequences from self-esteem to poverty. Although some of us can see parts of a new world, society is struggling to make the concerted effort to develop that vision and help more of us get there. People are being left in the debris of old stories. For instance, making policy on a thirty-year-old view of work when the job supply is dwindling and the world is shifting to more diverse, less secure options.
This is part of what gave us the EU referendum result. A lot of people saw it as a way to get the attention of a government that had been ignoring their needs.
When we are under that sort of stress, stretching our coping limit, we want to keep our world simple – even if that results in a skewed picture. Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right have all been playing on people’s need for simple stories that give an explanation and offer a world they could settle in. These bad things are because of those people. We can take them away and build magic walls to keep us secure.
Our brains want to defend themselves against input that brings more processing demands, often using some sort of outburst to deflect it. This can be unsettling to see in action, especially if the outburst doesn’t make much sense or is hurtful. Not everything people say is about advancing discussion: often it’s simply a release of energy. If you challenge it, that can lead to defensiveness and the attitude getting cemented in further.
Underneath the hurtful noise, the majority of people have the same values we all do. If they had a breathing space and some sense of peace, they might be more able to express their true values and ask for a world that reflects them.
There are two ways to address this inflammation. The first is to actually deal with the causes: helping people to have lives that work and stories they can fit into. If problems get dealt with we can move on; but we’ve got a legacy of not doing that so we feel the problems buzzing around us. We could do with big, visionary government action. Maybe one day that will be possible, but the world we're in is here precisely because this has been missing.
The other way is to help people manage their responses to these stresses. Today we have a range of tools from the personal development realm, like coaching, therapies and meditation, and a lot of useful writing. These can help people gather a sense of control over their lives, their minds, and their responses to the world. It's about adding some reflection into that space between trigger and response. Take back control – of yourself!
Of course some may be inclined to label this as woo-woo nonsense. Spreading personal development tools into more corners of society is likely to be a challenge. But used creatively, perhaps incorporated into other work or even just influencing the approach to that work, that investment could pay off massively in the longer term.
Because to tip society into better ways of doing things for all, we need a critical mass of people seeing clearly, being more reflective and less reactive. People who are in touch with their own values and who understand and believe in the journey toward a world that reflects those values. That’s not going to happen if people are running round a maze shouting.
Peace and kindness are not just fluffy concepts. In today’s world they are vital campaigning tools.
Tim Gray is a writer exploring social change, psychology, communication and personal development. He also helps people working for positive change to step forward with their messages, writing and websites. For further information visit www.theupwardpath.com or www.wordsthatchangetheworld.com.