There is something more in this than natural, if philosophy could find it out. – Hamlet
I have of late been haunted by an image from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In a post-apocalyptic world, starving bands of survivors roam a dark, barren landscape. There are no resources left, and so the survivors hunt and attack each other in their desperation. Most humans have lost their conscience, which is to say, they have descended into cannibalism.
On a moral and intellectual level, it seems to me that this is already the world we live in. The cataclysm has happened – the death of truth, the eruption of postmodernism – and with it has come the tribalism of social media, and the mob mentality that surges like a pack of scavengers, squabbling in the darkness to pick over the bones of the weak and those who have stumbled.
Like the hunters in The Road, we tend to define ourselves by what we are attacking, rather than what we are for. So, we are anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-EU, anti-Trump . . . . the list is endless. No one any longer asks what we are for. As long as we state loudly what we are against, we are providing the credentials needed for acceptance into the group.
The aim of discourse is no longer dialogue, but dominance. The quest for dominance is presented as ‘resistance’ against the ‘oppressor’, whomever we determine that to be. The post-modern meta-narrative is that ‘truths’ are the products of power, with the narratives of those considered more powerful requiring stronger resistance. In turn, this meta-narrative has given birth to Yeats’ slouching ‘rough beast’, for every group now claims to be oppressed, every group now claims to resist, and every group defines itself by its stand against its perceived enemies. Social discourse is imploding into smaller and smaller chambers that echo ever more loudly. And so, to follow Yeats, ‘things fall apart’.
It’s my belief that this polarisation is in the interests of only a small minority, and they are not the oppressed. What we are seeing is a strenuous campaign of divide and rule deliberately fomented by those who perceive that they can gain political, economic and even military advantage from it. From the White House to the Kremlin, from Robert Mercer to Nigel Farage, governments and demagogues are playing a dangerous game of incitement and division. While social media can, at least initially, bring people together, it is now being used to drive them apart. Sadly, it seems that there is little ‘resistance’ to this trend.
If a post is written that people feel is implicitly (or explicitly) offensive, ‘love wins’ is not the response; rather, it is a verbal flamethrower. The thrill of righteous anger spills into a rush of indignation, and the person who gave offence is now deserving of whatever insults they incur. Not only that, but others considered to be ‘associated’ with them will also be targets. They are required to denounce or be considered guilty. It’s all very familiar to anyone who has studied McCarthyism – or indeed countless other ‘purges’ throughout history.
People like Donald Trump and Steven Bannon relish this kind of division. The anger of the left, Bannon has claimed, is playing into the hands of the right – or more precisely, those who are manipulating the anger of the right for their own purposes. It can even be argued that the rise of the right has only become possible because of the left’s obsession with fractured oppression narratives, whilst simultaneously making no actual difference to the lives of those whom they claim to champion. This is a common explanation for the Brexit vote: people in the regions feeling ignored and abandoned by political ‘elites’ – a frustration that was fanned to anger by carefully chosen language, deliberately designed to distract, incite and divide. President Trump’s tweets perform the same function – to generate anger, stir up a backlash and forestall reasoned debate. For such leaders, informed debate is anathema; it is a direct threat to their power base.
When terrorists strike, as they did this year at Manchester Arena, London Bridge, Finsbury Park and far too many other places, it was inspiring to see the consistent responses of both political leaders and the general public: ‘you will not divide us’; ‘we will not give in to hate’; ‘love wins’. Unfortunately we rarely see such attitudes on social media. Rather, the masses are amazingly compliant with digital narratives of oppression and resistance. Surges of indignation wash around the globe at amazing speed, to be overtaken by others of even greater intensity.
Real resistance is not to insult some imagined enemy, or to reject those who do not use the same language. It is to oppose the incitement to division that is being pumped into our worlds every day by bots, extremist websites, fake news, political game-players, and our own over-reactions. It is to adhere to that very same message we use in response to terrorism: we will not be divided, we will not be incited to hatred. Love wins.
But to resist in this way requires us to find an identity that is defined, not by what we are against, but what we are for. What do we really hope for? What is the best way to achieve it? If we choose to pursue such a path, we might find that we have many more ideals in common than we currently think.
Then again, we might also find a yawning emptiness, a door into the darkness of our souls.