It may surprise you to learn that I can be… kind of an arsehole at times. It’s never intentional, but let’s just say I am acutely aware of my… um… gaps. Part hard-wired, part adaptive, part just learning the hard way that nobody likes a precocious kid, a know-it-all or a big mouth and yet still having to suppress my uncontrollable spergy rage when someone is wrong, ignorant or lying.
Which, when my interest is in the politics of the internet, with large parts of my day spent observing professional opinion-havers leap from armchair to armchair on every topic from constitutional law to epidemiology to international relations, I wonder how they possibly find the time to do any research, or look stuff up… oh… that guy just said Biden is a communist and that other one said Trump was fighting against the elites. Never mind.
Despite my frustration, and frequent impulse to say “fuck it, stop defending these fools, shut ‘em down”, I do try my best to give people the benefit of the doubt, because, like I said, I too am kind of an inadvertent arsehole, and I want to help.
People respond to fear, trauma and grief differently. Some turn inward, some lash out at others, some are drawn to conspiracy theories. Not to mention that making politics the only lens through which you see the world is probably a mental illness in its own right. And you can take that to the bank, because I spent ten years at University studying politics, and… yeah, y’all are not okay.
I have watched everyone gradually lose their minds, with accelerant poured on it in 2020. Some have made it back, kinda, some not so much. This phenomenon was why I decided to shift my focus into trying to diagnose what broke the internet – noticing something really off with the way marketers and campaigners were using data with no regard for the political, social and psychological impacts, and seeing, well, this, coming down the pipe. All of this.
What we see, right now, started out fairly benign in the form of the good-spirited internet flame wars. But, over the years, the marketers decided people’s brains were fair game and little disagreements and fairly benign brand loyalties turned into full-blown religious wars. Coke vs Sprite, Mac vs PC, Republicans vs Democrats, right vs left, increasingly more refined and progressively more vicious, until it was left vs left, family vs family, sister vs brother, friend vs friend …and us vs ourselves. All imploding, with our identities as cynical market segments, for the benefit of the rich and powerful, with all of us being nudged into taking up arms… first in a Twitter mob and now… for a literal religious war.
I think we can all agree that everything is pretty awful right now. Just as I start to hope that we may be over the worst of it, along comes something else, asking us to hold their beer.
The brutal attacks by Hamas on innocent Israelis was… horrific. I have no words. The treatment of Palestinians in Gaza is horrific. I have no words. Israel being given carte blanche by world leaders to “defend itself”, knowing full well that the response will be unspeakably cruel, is a slow motion nightmare that we can’t wake up from, and have no power to stop, lest we brush up against the propaganda machine that calls the stating of facts “siding with Hamas” and calls for ceasefire “antisemitism” and calls for adherence to international law “blood libel”. I have no words. I don’t feel I should even try to have words, but still, I have none.
All I do know is that the issue seems to become far less “complex” with every day that passes, and if I hadn’t seen this neoliberal-turned-fascist Weapon of Mass Distraction play out with so many issues for so many years, I’d be a lot more surprised. Instead, I am more despondent, because even though I am happy that South Park is still skewering Woke Disney and everyone sees through ESG bollocks, I know the real problem: people have had all their best impulses and most vulnerable blind spots weaponised by an industry with zero ethics.
I saw this coming, and even though I had no choice but to decide not to be complicit in it, I also had to accept there was nothing I could do to stop what I saw coming. Nobody cared, so long as they met their quarterly KPIs and could remove themselves from the impact on users through a series of dashboards and fictional personas of people that don’t exist. But of course, the opinion-havers, settling into their newest armchair and “Middle East correspondent” hat, now allow themselves to be a billboard or cheerleader for religious fundamentalists who want to bring about the Rapture with everyone else on Earth acceptable collateral damage.
How… Christ-like of them.
Meanwhile, most decent and ordinary people just look on, speechless, trying to process all this seemingly unending and escalating violence. It’s …a lot. The anguish I feel over all of it, the powerlessness, the despair, the guilt at thinking that what I think about it matters at all, the anger at the media and the cold and callous corporate ghouls who sit in Raytheon earnings calls and rub their hands in a way that would make Hannah Arendt recoil: I still know that is my response. I also know that people respond differently to fear, trauma and grief and that the opinion-havers and all the people I love and respect who are not acting like themselves are just trying to make sense of an awful situation.
Situational awareness was never something that came naturally to me. It has taken over four decades of deep sighs, shifting bodies and audible groans to teach me that not every “how’s things?” is an invitation for a monologue, and that sometimes, Téa, your need for a captive audience can sometimes turn into a hostage situation. It hasn’t been easy to learn, but if there’s one thing I know, it is that there is far more to life than being smart, or right, particularly if you want to keep friends, and especially if you want to change hearts and minds.
People don’t change their minds based on facts, even when they aren’t freaking out. The way you say things, the timing, and the emotional states of those you are talking to are far more important than rallying of a list of facts. Thank you, Captain Wikipedia, I only asked how your day was going.
I cope with stress in odd ways. Like, I will sweat the dumbest and smallest things, and yet, as soon as shit hits the fan and the emotional stakes get real, the cooler and more logical I become. Let’s just say, you want me by your side when the world’s falling apart – I step up, learn, and organise while others are crumbling. Whilst my response is one of almost-maladaptive disassociation (and frequently read as a clinical coldness) I also understand after all the sighs and groans that not everyone does this, and sometimes they just need some space to freak out, lash out, and deflect and, and you know, maybe even accidentally find themselves on the side of genocide because they aren’t in their right minds. Maybe, everyone just needs a minute, might just want a hug and a white lie and some reassurance that everything is going to be okay. And a little love and forgiveness when they finally come to their senses and realise that maybe they should not have access to Instagram if they’re going to… umm… you know. That.
I have talked before about how I was in various online communities during 9/11, when Americans lost their goddamn minds. Now, this is very different, because as much as Americans would love to tell us otherwise, the Twin Towers were not prophecised as the site of the boss fight to end all boss fights where the son of God returns and the people who let children starve to death, pollute the planet and bomb civilians …get to go to Heaven for …some reason. But, the main point is that everyone lost it.
And there I was, final year of my politics degree with my big mouth and list of facts, to analyse the situation. To explain to a bunch of traumatised and very confused Americans who truly thought the world loved them that it was, in fact, not the case, and that this was a natural consequence of decades of shitty policy that had killed way more people than the Holocaust.
There I was, spitting the truth when all they wanted was a hug and to tell them it was going to be okay. They of course lashed out at me. And, rightly so. I then doubled down, like an arsehole, to the point where a few people that were willing to hear what I had to say said “enough”. I was the recipient of everyone’s grief, trauma and fear, and, frankly, I deserved it.
I was factually correct.
I was also wrong.
I was also never going to change anyone’s mind in that moment, because people were hurting and they weren’t looking for a lecture. They were scared, and confused, and propagandised and had been given a shock that would take them some time to process.
What’s my point? Well, for one, even if you are right, maybe you are still being an arsehole. Nobody is waving away the plight of the Palestinians. Most people are just dealing with things in different ways. Some with cold hard analysis, some with scapegoating and misdirected anger. Some have had a really rough few years and have finally snapped. Others simply just don’t know what to say, or do, or feel and so try to make people laugh.
And some want to bring about the Rapture, who we all know, if they do find themselves confronted by Christ, they come to realise they fucked around and found out, because if there is one thing Christ taught, it was to forgive and to love. Oh and all that Old Testament don’t murder and don’t lie and don’t covet thy neighbours goods and all the other inconvenient rules.
We are powerless to stop what is happening right now. There is nothing any of us can do to change the minds of the ghoulish, bloodthirsty psychopaths that run the show. But one thing we can do, is exercise our compassion equally. Try to understand that people are stupid and say stupid things and respond differently to horrible situations. We’ve had a horrible few years, and people aren’t okay, and so those of us who are able to keep it all together have a duty to forgive people who aren’t.
So what I will do is remind you of theoretical concepts like the hot-cold empathy gap and normalcy bias and fear responses, and help people behind the scenes. Because that’s what I do. And you can scream and yell and flail, because that’s what you do. But I hope, in the end, that we can practice what we preach and forgive each other, work towards peace, and understand who the real enemy is. And understand that a lot of the anger is not because you are correct, but, because you’re being an arsehole.
I’m not saying any of this to dismiss everyone’s pain and suffering. It’s…. fucking horrible. But I am sticking to just one armchair, and saying “please… just… stop.”
When everything is awful and everyone is upset, it’s all I know how to do. I’m here if you need me.