The normalisation of living on the brink

At a time when the world is facing multiple existential threats, humankind is struggling to shake off its self-destructive instincts.

Credits: AK Rockefeller/Flickr, Wikimedia, dougsyme/Flickr

It is an odd by-product of the digital age that huge, world-changing news stories are reduced to push notifications on a smartphone screen. You may have seen many such alerts flash up this year. Islamist extremists murder pedestrians in vehicle attacks in London and Barcelona. White racists deploy the same technique in London and Virgina. Unprecedented storms and flooding devastate the southern USA, large parts of South Asia and the Caribbean. North Korea conducts the largest nuclear test in its history.

The immediate inclination is to feel shock and despair about such news snippets – but what then? Once the information registers, you might also feel an inclination to put it out of your mind, seek distractions and move on. This kind of thing is happening all the time now, after all, and what can we as lowly citizens do about any of it?

This normalisation of catastrophe – both current and impending – is not just defeatist, but dystopian. It means, when taken to its logical conclusion, that we as humankind have finally succumbed to our self-destructive tendencies. We are beyond help, living on borrowed time and that’s just the way it is. The best we can hope is when the next news alert flashes up on our phone, it doesn’t affect us personally. Until it does.

Several writers of different political persuasions have identified this disastrous malaise. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey in the US last month, Guardian writer George Monbiot asked why so few politicians and media outlets were making an overt connection between the disaster and man-made climate change. He points out, for example, that although 2016 was the hottest year on record, the total combined coverage of climate change for the entire year on the evening and Sunday news programmes of four major American TV networks was 50 minutes.

His explanation for this wilful silence is that to even discuss climate change is to question the entire economic and political system that has caused it. We are so entrenched in this status quo that there is no going back, even as the number of extreme weather events rises to 400 per year, four times as many as in 1970. That inertia grips an uninformed public too.

Meanwhile commentator Douglas Murray has spoken of a collective acceptance of disaster when discussing responses to Islamist terrorism. Shortly after the Barcelona attack last month he wrote a piece for The Spectator arguing that “Islamist violence has become a normal part of European life”. Similarly, in a piece for the Sun after the London Bridge attack in June, he criticised the willingness of many people to simply move on after the atrocity, without any substantive discussion of why Islamist extremism is on the rise or of how to tackle it.

“It is the same everywhere: Don’t look back in anger, just forward in blind, bovine hope. This has to change,” he said.

Monbiot and Murray would likely disagree on many things, but it is interesting that two writers with different political standpoints have both identified a widespread, systemic refusal to tackle the big existential questions facing humanity today. It feeds into the wider notion that as a species the human race has grown increasingly nihilistic, both unwilling and unable to change course.

It is telling that some of those historical issues that have long caused instability and suffering in the world are no longer discussed with any constructive solutions in mind. Where there was once meaningful dialogue on everything from North Korea to the Israel-Palestine question, now there is only grim acceptance that conflict, chaos and misery reigns.

Donald Trump is the embodiment of this nihilistic impulse. At a time when the world requires thoughtful, measured leaders prepared to work hard in finding long-term solutions to humanity’s complex threats, the incumbent US president offers only crude, simplistic soundbites that destabilise the world further. Trump denies scientific evidence, preferring to trust in his own base instincts.

But Trump was not elected in a vacuum. His ascendancy to become the most powerful man in the world should be seen as an indictment on humanity as a whole – the logical end-game of our self-destructive streak. Whether you support Trump the president or not, we are all part of the world that created him.

This article is not meant to sound equally nihilistic. There are still ways that we can step back from the brink. First and foremost, we need to see a return to the open and free exchange of ideas, regardless of political persuasion. Identity politics has led to dangerous thought policing and the suppression of debate on both the left and right. This needs to change if we are to confront openly and honestly the challenges we face. It also means reasserting the value of science, experts and verified facts.

But we also need to see a popular revolt calling for true democracy, rather than a narrow politics dominated by narrow interests. In the UK, for example, it cannot be right that Theresa May’s government is able to get away with suppressing a report into the foreign funding of UK extremists for fear that it will undermine ties with Saudi Arabia, of which the UK is a major weapons supplier. If all moral authority is lost, regardless of nation, what hope is there for the wider world?

So debate, protest and don’t accept the status quo we have created for ourselves. That way lies destruction.

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