Well, that escalated quickly.
Or, rather, slowly. Because when democracies start to fray, the corrosion is usually incremental. Few regimes are overthrown overnight. The first few inflammatory statements are dismissed as innocuous, even idiotic, but gradually norms are shifted, tribes moulded, and scapegoats identified. Out-group hostility is the fulcrum of our primal psychologies, and it has produced a grim pattern across the sweep of human history. Schisms emerge over generations, only to last for centuries.
Often the question is how rather than why. How could reasonable people ever allow these things to happen? The answer relates to the psychology of social groups. Simply put, we are not as collectively vigilant as we like to think.
Most of us in the mainstream simply presume that the extremists will shrivel away in time, suffocated by their own irrationalities. This overlooks the fact that attachment to the irrational has seldom hampered humankind before. In fact, irrationality is our cultural motif. Even the most civilised societies embrace superstition, valorise the mystical, and luxuriate in trivia. We like it when our societies engage with the ridiculous. It is a sign of our intellectual riches that we can afford to be so wasteful.
Plentiful research in psychology shows that the information we exchange in everyday life is seldom filtered for falsehoods. Daily communication is grounded in gossip rather than quality control. Peer-review is for professional scientists, ordinary humans judge veracity on the visuals. What looks good, what feels right, that’s the type of information we trust. From quack therapies to anti-vaccination paranoia to post-electoral conspiracy theories, specious beliefs plunder the collective human imagination, traversing the world while the truth puts on its slippers.
To be fair, most of us feel we can do the necessary background checks when required. The problem is we seldom actually want to go such trouble. We delude ourselves into believing in mass human righteousness and the unstoppable force of social conscience. We think that the very fact those Proud Boy bozos spout their bullshit in public means they won’t get very far. We presume that, given enough time, somebody somewhere will simply shout “Stop!”
Somebody else, that is.
What social psychologists have labelled the diffusion of responsibility effect exerts a perverse impact on our consciences. The more people who witness a crisis, the less we feel personally compelled to act. We feel so sure that others will do the job, it hardly makes sense to intervene ourselves. Cumulatively this dynamic leads to a mass bystander bail-out. The bigger the initial clusterfuck, the greater our eventual apathy.
From our armchairs, it can be tempting to lay the blame on those who are gullible enough to be radicalised by conspiracy theories. It seems reasonable to condemn social media echo chambers for fomenting keyboard fascism. But while online extremism is a true modern crisis, it is not the only problem. The real kicker is bystander inertia. Our problems are worsened when civic responsibility is diluted and we turn blind eyes, en masse, to the ensuing commotion.
Or when we roll our eyes at it. After all, coups usually look dumb from a distance, especially in their early stages. Many insurrections just saunter past the barricades wearing stupid hats. But before you know it, what starts out as farce turns out to be fascism. That joke isn’t funny anymore.
“It will never happen here” is a comforting rationalisation until the very moment it actually does start to happen, right here. Laughing at fascists never feels good in hindsight.
But why wait for hindsight? The evidence of fascism is before us.
This is not a drill.
* * *
Last year, the Pew Research Center polled American citizens and asked them how Donald Trump’s various public comments made them feel. Here were the top seven responses:
- concerned — 76 percent
- confused — 70 percent
- embarrassed — 69 percent
- exhausted — 67 percent
- angry — 65 percent
- insulted — 62 percent
- frightened — 56 percent
As one journalist wrote in the Washington Post at the time, “I am not a psychologist, but I would reckon that there might be something going on here.”
Indeed. After Trump was first elected, the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey showed that more than half the US population were suffering from significant post-election stress. Opinion surveys on political anxiety can be difficult to interpret, but similar findings quickly piled up. Researchers reported post-election upticks in stress-related cardiovascular events and sleep disorders. One study recorded a surge in premature births, a recognised indicator of stress during pregnancy.
The legacy of political chaos is never confined to civic structures. The human cost of societal stress is real.
* * *
Meanwhile, Irish journalist Donie O’Sullivan has been trending after his extraordinary on-the-ground reporting of the insurrection for CNN. Speaking on Irish radio today, he offered us this sobering comparison:
“Imagine rioters swinging from the chandelier in Dáil Éireann”, he said.
Of course, we have no shortage of home-grown far-right knuckleheads right here in Ireland.
Please, Donie. Don’t be giving them ideas.