Chatter of Freedom

So we did it. We made it. We made it past a year full of political challenges. At times – I swear – it seemed we were not going to survive all the political storms howling over our neighbors’ roofs and over ours. Typically, any next election seemed to focus more on ‘what was worse’ than on what was right. And while there is nothing illogical about wanting to avoid disaster, we may want to understand afterwards whether disaster was looming in the first place, or that we were seeking to be hypnotized.

We humans like to worry, we enjoy a good scare, and apparently not at the movies exclusively. Good tidings never sold newspapers, and never bait enough clicks. And even though our need for scares is an aspect of the most conservative tendencies we have – inasmuch as we fear to lose what we hold dear – it is an aspect of our character which renders us most susceptible to manipulation. And this is what most political parties engage in to a certain extent. More effective than stating the benefits of the own party’s win, is arguing what horrible prospects the opponent’s victory would offer. And the scarier the prospect, the more powerful the claim of the proper party’s importance. The pendulum always strikes back. The ancient Greeks knew that by representing their opponents as more formidable, their own victories would seem all the more heroic. And if we apply the same principle in electoral politics, we gain more momentum by swinging the pendulum as far back in the opposite direction as we can.

The success of this approach does depend on having a limited number of issues, or a paucity of scares, which public debate cares to focus on. As long as we are balancing many diverse issues, in varying areas of public life, we may still define our position vis-à-vis the reductive choices we are offered on election day as a bit of this and a little bit of that. It is a climate of mono-scares which pushes us to relinquish considerations of a more calculated – and maybe cumbersome, because imperfect – nature and throw ourselves into the arms of whomever is promising to take our fears away. And this is where the inadequacy of the term fake news becomes manifest. Not because dubious facts are not spread like wildfire through the world-wide web, but because political debate is increasingly organized from a bi-polar perspective; two narratives remain, it seems, and all ‘minor’ issues are brought in line with either the one or the other. This can be said of the issues of terrorism, of religion, of LGBT rights, of migration, of Moscow’s role in the world today. Perhaps only the liberal economy, that is, capitalism escapes this bi-polar divide, in the sense that it is under pressure from either narrative. And if there is a reason I am worried about the logic driving this pendulum ever more outward, it is the fact that this is not the first time the world has witnessed this phenomenon.

I call it the mother of all narratives. Left and Right are political opposites, and, therefore, their respective fringes are most contrarian. Easiest would be to shrug this off as a silly rhetorical device on my part. But then, we would have to ignore the way fascism grabbed power – by getting elected, remember? – in Europe, under the pretext of being able to push back against communism. We would have to ignore the fact that either ideology presented itself as the alternative to liberal democracy and capitalism. We would have to ignore their territorial expansionism and totalitarian rule. And we would be destined to continue to misunderstand the ideological divide between Western and Eastern Europe, where it is the direct consequence of historical experience, founded on our respective answer to the question ‘what was worse?’ – and anyone would answer that question by indicating the type of totalitarianism they were so unlucky to suffer under. Unfortunately, we seem trapped in this narrative of false alternatives, hypnotized by events that seem to swim out to ever more scary extremes and the threat of imminent disaster, while it could well be that the volatility we feel subjected to is, in actual fact, an expression of political success and well-being.

In the meantime, the internet keeps pumping through terabyte after terabyte of information. Good news – you say? Yes. So what seems to bother us? Is it just the manipulation, and multiplication, of poisonous data by parties who have no interest in the free circulation of information in the first place? Or could it be the sheer quantity of it is enough to make us nervous in and of itself? What is ironic about the internet-induced vogue of ‘anti-mainstream-media’ news is that it shows not to be in competition to make us feel better about the world around us. On the contrary. Almost without exception, what we are told ‘mainstream media’ refuse to tell us is more bad news, more disasters hid behind the façade of the, allegedly not so respectable, news organizations. But are we really in such a bind? Should we worry about the future? Should we worry about tomorrow?

What are the most basic data? They say we are doing fine. Life-expectancy continues to go up. People living in poverty are fewer every year. Brilliant doctors manage to cure more and more diseases. Due process has been developed to such an extent in Europe that a major change in international affiliations is being resolved, not through war, but by endless discussions. Instant noodles have brought a nutrient meal within the reach of the majority of the global population. On average, the world is significantly safer than in the past. And yes: the internet offers a global stage for exchanging information and opinions.

Now much has been said about information-bubbles and echo-chambers, and about the limitative nature of (political) organization by way of the world-wide web, but could at least part of our unease not derive from the exact opposite intuition? That those days of isolation were, in fact, splendid, and definitively over? From the fact that we become so easily aware of, and are so eerily able to debate with, so many people we do not seem to share a hint of any values with? Geographical, cultural, and even historical gaps are becoming more and more apparent – the latter in the sense that the frenetic rhythm of the internet stimulates us to historicize even the smallest changes on the shortest notice. Communication has not merely globalized, it has also democratized, as everybody has acquired a public voice. What if you don’t like the sound of it? Are you tempted to suppose the sound of it is new, that people cannot possibly have been so stupidly ignorant ever before? Or is it just that it was so easy to ignore the background noise in the past?

And this is where our cognitive scissors start to open. Because not all transformations keep the same pace. And I’m not getting into an argument – not now – about what leads the way, ideology or experience, but our lives, public and private, are full of examples where we demand that the one falls in line with the other. As a matter of fact, change would not at all be thinkable if it weren’t for these discrepancies opening up before us. Yet, the irony is that when they do, we are likely to see one of the two in a normative sense, and expect the other blade of our scissors to quietly follow suit and close the gap, to reduce the differential between what is and what we believe is right, and to eliminate our feelings of unease. And I believe that this is where we feel particularly exposed today.

Low frustration tolerance was once coined to describe how discomfort-avoidance can be a factor in (psychologically) unhealthy behavior. Deferring gratification is thereby described as a characteristic of healthy behavior, as planning allows us humans to build a greater good for the future. Yet, the practical drive of our civilization heads in that very direction. Naturally, devices, systems, and inventions generally aim to make our lives easier, not harder, and this guiding principle has made all our lives better since the wheel was invented, though I am tempted to mention the chair, antibiotics, and the washing machine, as well. The invention that I feel sums up this tendency best, however, would be the remote control. We’ve become capable of manipulating our immediate environment and our experience with the slightest push of our finger. Whether or not this makes us feel more divine, or at least closer to God, is a question I have no intent of addressing now. What I am quite sure it does, though, is to habituate us to a relationship of instantaneous control over the conditions formerly governing our lives. And it may be so sweet an experience as to terrify us when we find ourselves deprived. The scissors have been opened in expectation – can we ever feel satisfied again, if the totality of our lives does not, at some point, realign with this never-dreamt-of prospect?

And many aspects of our comfortable lives are subject to fits of unease, when we are confronted with standards from different areas, or different eras. Extreme weather conditions hardly are a new phenomenon, but whereas in the past they were accepted as a part of life, now – while the number of people actually suffering from them is constantly reduced – our tolerance of them has plummeted. And this goes for all fields in which people try their best to exclude accident, malpractice, and suffering in general. Life becomes dearer, while we find threats to it ever more unacceptable. The point being, that our discomfort not necessarily lies in the incidence of injustice or abuse, but that we may become outraged because we have become accustomed to, or have been led to expect, a world which is better than what we have come to see.

Clearly, we have come to see more and more. We learn about car accidents in far-away places. We read about flooding in a country on the other side of the world, and about tribal conflict on another continent. And even around the corner from our own home, we find out about people who live in completely different circumstances, facing the same neighborhood from an entirely different perspective. We have connected to the world-wide web. Can we find fake news on it? Absolutely. Is it a source of narratives that you find appalling? Surely. Can it be a source of unease and more serious worries? Without a doubt. And you may also have a reason to fear being manipulated, but then chances are your fears are not going to help you. As neither will your expectations if you do not remember where your scissors started opening. It does sound like a lot of noise, doesn’t it? It is the chatter of freedom – had it sounded like your very own dreams, you certainly would have been less free.

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