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On doomscrolling, decline and deradicalization
In Canadian journalist and public policy professor Andrew Potter’s excellent book On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, and Why Every Year is the Worst Year Ever, he argues that every year since 2016 has gotten progressively more chaotic. The string of headline-dominating events that he lists includes the war in Syria, hurricanes in the Gulf, the Zika virus, terrorist attacks in Nice and Brussels, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump. In 2020 alone, there was the American drone strike near Baghdad that killed Iran’s Qasem Soleimani, inflaming tensions, followed by the Ukrainian Airlines flight shot down in Tehran, along with Australian wildfires, the death of Kobe Bryant, and the Wet’suwet’en pipeline blockades here in Canada — all of which, Potter emphasizes, happened “before the end of February.”
What came next, of course, was a global pandemic, lockdowns, school closures, George Floyd, and mass unrest. Followed by January 6 and the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.
Then, in this country, this year, a national crisis triggered by trucker protests. The day after Trudeau lifted the Emergencies Act, Russia invaded Ukraine.
These past couple of weeks in particular have typified that famed Lenin quote that “there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen.” Uncertainty is now a constant companion.
Andrew Potter is my guest on the podcast next week, so we’ll discuss this more then. But in the meantime, I think it’s fair to say that a good many of us are currently lost in a downward spiral of doomscrolling, utterly overwhelmed by the news.
It is a time in history that calls for deep contemplation and cautious, measured action. A time in which we must think critically about the complex reality we find ourselves in.
But we are ill-equipped to make sense of this moment. And that is because things stopped making sense some time ago.
Our ability to reason things out has been compromised by a society-wide abandonment of principle. There is no longer any coherent, collective set of guidelines with which to judge reality.
In other words: Things are no longer expected to make sense.
It is now normal in the public discourse, especially on Twitter, to pick a side and bend one’s perspective, one’s arguments, and even one’s facts, to fit its dominant narratives. We feel less and less compelled to answer the most basic of questions: Does this make sense? Is what I am arguing governed by logic? Would I extend this same principle, this same line of thought, this same conclusion, to an issue that I disagree with?
All of this is why I’ve been doing so much reading and interviewing on affective political polarization, and will continue to do so.
On that note, here’s some “self help for partisans” from Andrew Potter, with a warning:
Canadian politics, on all sides, is descending ever deeper into a style what we can call “performance partisanship.” If our representatives can’t see their way to helping themselves out of their partisan echo chambers, if they can’t put themselves in the other side’s shoes, if they can’t credibly interpret their opponents as rational people acting in good faith, then we will be not much better off than the Americans, defining ourselves not by what we believe in, but who we despise.
And here’s a great piece from John Halpin, Partisan Sectarianism is Wrecking America, with some similarly sage advice:
Americans would do well to find more cooperative local projects to work on together—fixing schools, cleaning up neighborhoods and keeping them safe, getting to know others from different backgrounds and faith traditions, helping those most in need—rather than constantly retreating into partisan echo chambers and looking for more ways to despise other Americans.
We can’t eradicate partisan sectarianism overnight. But we can take steps to institutionally encourage more viewpoint diversity in the two-party system and “deradicalize” our own partisan politics by refusing to live based on animosity towards others.
Speaking of deradicalization…
A group of scholars, activists, and tech leaders, including Minds CEO Bill Ottman, released a report yesterday, arguing that social media censorship is not the solution to extremism, and that it cements grievances, heightens insecurities and perceptions of threat, and drives people into echo chambers of isolation, frustration, and bad actors. “The research found significant evidence that censorship and deplatforming can promote and amplify, rather than suppress, cognitive radicalization and even violent extremism,” the group notes.
The report finds that people are primarily radicalized through experiences of disaffection, and through face-to-face encounters and offline relationships.
It also points out that “while censorship practices negatively affected all kinds of people, they particularly impacted marginalized communities — not only working-class conservatives and conspiracy theorists (Abril 2021), but also communities of color, women, LGBTQ+ communities, and religious minorities (Díaz & Hecht-Felella, 2021).”
The Change Minds Initiative includes Daryl Davis, a famed activist who’s deradicalized more than 200 members of the KKK. “A missed opportunity for dialogue is a missed opportunity for conflict resolution,” Davis told me, explaining the group’s philosophy. “When you deny somebody that platform, that soapbox, the ability to amplify their views and be heard, they seek out other platforms that become echo chambers. Some of them may be nefarious and give birth to conspiracy theories, sometimes violence, sometimes plots. We don't want that.”
The group proposes an alternative content moderation framework — developed by experts in deradicalization, statistical analysis and social networking technologies — that prioritizes open source software, user-controlled algorithms, free expression, privacy, and community governance. The model aims “to reduce polarization, increase access to information and build a more healthy society.”