We’re spending so much time being outraged and so little time taking action. A distracted citizen base is as easy to manipulate as a fearful one, writes Joyce Fegan.
Whether you’re a diehard capitalist or an ardent socialist, an atheist or an orthodox Jew, or whether you believe in closing borders or welcoming those in need, there is one thing that every single human being has in common: We all want to survive.
This week, a highly respected scientist was asked about the silver bullet that would tackle climate change. Yes, he mentioned things like transitioning to cleaner sources of energy, from aviation fuel to how we heat our homes, and moving to a more plant-based diet, but how we talk to each other was the real silver bullet.
When it comes to climate change, urgent action is needed. There is no time for division, no time for delay. There is an urgency with which we need to do things, and ideally we all need to move together. This will require diplomacy and useful discourse.
But, right now, we live in a time of divisive discourse, where there are always two sides and you’re on one or the other. This divisive discourse permeates every single issue we have to tackle. It’s been three years since our neighbours voted to leave the EU, and it’s been three years of inertia and noise, no action.
It’s coming up on three years since our other neighbours elected Donald Trump to the White House. Gun control, abortion rights, and immigration are constantly on the US news agenda — they’re the three most divisive issues — and no progress has occurred in any of those three areas. But that’s what division does, isn’t it? It stalls progress.
Well some progress. This week, the Washington Post reported that for the first time in history, in 2018, US billionaires paid a lower tax rate than the working class. The average effective tax rate paid by America’s 400 richest families was 23%. For some 400 families, it seems this divisive world is really paying off.
But what of the other 7bn of us? It’s back to the notion that no matter what, we all want to survive. The misogynistic man who takes aim at Melinda Gates for “spending her husband’s money” wants to survive. The racist teenager who physically assaults a girl by ripping off her hijab wants to survive.
The gay-bashing woman who spits at a same-sex couple holding hands wants to survive. All of these people want to survive as much as Greta Thunberg does, as much as Bernie Sanders does, and as much as Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson do.
Pulitzer prize-winning biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin was being interviewed about our divisive world last November, just before the US midterm elections.
The 76-year-old historian recalled a time when Republicans and Democrats “played poker together” and “drank together”. She described what it was like in the 1906s when the Civil Rights Act was passed, in a country that was literally built on genocide and slavery. She said:
This is the kind of courageous diplomacy it takes to creates change. Division causes nothing only further division, and we currently have more of the latter and less of the former. Ms Goodwin said that now “is certainly the most partisan time in my lifetime”.
In Ireland, we are currently up in arms over a curse word uttered in the Dáil chamber. How many column inches did that story consume and how much civilian attention did it capture? We’re spending so much time being outraged and so little time taking action. A distracted citizen base is as easy to manipulate as a fearful one.
Who’s capitalising on your quick rise to outrage? Social media companies? The media? Twitter and Facebook make money by selling advertising and the more eyeballs on their platforms, the more ads they’ll sell. A viral tweet taking aim at someone’s gender, sexuality, or race is quite profitable in the age of outrage.
So is a catchy headline online taking easy aim at Greta Thunberg, written by someone who seeks more to be read than to write something worth reading. The media, both traditional and social publishers, have responsibilities to their audience and greater society when they hold influence and are taking in cash.
But let’s not forget, we are their audience, and it is our appetite they’re feeding. We want to be entertained — who isn’t up-to-date on the latest twist in the Coleen Rooney v Rebekah Vardy online war? We definitely want to be outraged, and sometimes, yes, we want to be informed too.
But the outrage is what divides us and the division is what paralyses progress. We might feel strongly about abortion and despise anyone with alternate views, just as we may believe in open borders and be repulsed by anyone who wants to refuse refugees, but fundamentally, what we all have in common is that desire to survive.
And when it comes to the most pressing issue of our time — climate action — the name of the game is literally survival.
Our politicians can lead the way. They can agree to a cross-party consensus and leave parish-pump politics for potholes.
Citizens can lead the way too. Every time we rise to outrage, we can ask ourselves: “Well what constructive thing could I do with this energy instead?”
And the media — when it comes to peaceful protesters exercising their right to assemble and demonstrate,instead of painting them as troublemakers, why not engage with them and ask them questions about the purpose and method of their action?
If an environmental scientist says constructive discourse is the silver bullet to pave the way for climate action, I think we should take note and check ourselves.
Do we want to be outraged or do we want to survive? I’m on the side of survive.