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 as 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. They last for centuries.
Often the questions are about how reasonable people could ever allow these things to happen. The answers relate to the psychology of social groups. Simply put, we are not as collectively vigilant as we like to think we are.
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. Civic societies regularly embrace superstition, valorise the mystical, and make a true virtue of trivia.
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. We leave peer-review to professional scientists. Ordinary humans tend to judge veracity on the basis of 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 frequently plunder the 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. However, the problem is that we seldom actually want to go such trouble. We don’t feel the need. We delude ourselves with beliefs about mass human righteousness and the unstoppable force of social conscience. We conclude that the very fact those Proud Boy bozos spout their bullshit in public means that they won’t get very far. We presume that, given enough time, somebody somewhere will simply shout “Stop!”.
Somebody else, that is.
In fact, we feel so sure others will do the job that it hardly makes sense for us to intervene ourselves. The more people who can see what’s going on, the less need there is for us to do anything. The bigger the clusterfuck, the greater our apathy.
From our armchairs, it can be tempting to decry the impact of conspiracy theories in radicalising the gullible. It can seem fair to blame social media echo chambers for fomenting keyboard fascism. However, while online extremism is a true modern crisis, it is not the only problem. The overall dynamic is dependent on bystander inertia. It kicks into gear when personal civic responsibility is diluted, and is propelled when we turn blind eyes, en masse, to the ensuing commotion.
Or when we roll our eyes at it all. Coups often 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 looks good in hindsight.
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 published the results of their Stress in America survey, showing that more than half the population were suffering from significant post-election stress. Opinion surveys on political anxiety can often 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 stressfulness of societal events is real. And the legacy of political chaos is never just felt by civic society.
* * *
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.