How did we get here?
The author is CEO of Soft Landing Consulting.
In the wake of last Friday’s mass shooting in Christchurch, mass media has been filled with editorials and discussions on where we have collectively arrived. There has been a great deal of soul searching about hate being shared at internet speed around the world, and how the New Zealand tragedy may be playing to reactionary groups in both the West and the Islamic communities. Yet there has been precious little review of how we got here.
One can trace much of these events” progression as far back as the last quarter of the last century, and arguably yet further back than then. If you are old enough, you may recall some people wondering how television and movies displaying western societies may be installing envy and anger among viewers in less affluent nations. Fortunately for the wealthy societies, those unhappy emotions were contained in immobile people in faraway nations. So, the comparatively wealthy had the luxury of indulging in “out of sight, out of mind” escapism.
This began to change as the internet became established in even in less prosperous societies. Not only could dissatisfied communities be updated on wealth disparity, now they could communicate and organize at little or no cost over the global network.
Around the turn of this millennium, “globalism” became a hot topic to summarize how the world was shrinking and becoming more interconnected. The concept was first heavily criticized by the left as an alibi for multinational corporations and their allies to better control the world. In any case, there was a smug assumption that western leaders were in control of these mega changes. There was little, additional thought of how these changes were affecting the lives of most of the world’s population.
That myopic perspective was suddenly shattered with 9/11. Terrorists struck the United States in a traumatic fashion from the larger, poorer share of the world. While the 9/11 terrorists did not represent more than a handful of radicals, there was a tacit satisfaction felt by millions of people that the Americans and the rest of the West finally understood what it is like to be unexpectedly attacked by foreigners.
To Al Qaeda and its supporters, the 9/11 attack was retribution. But of course, there were strong calls for revenge in various western societies, particularly from reactionary quarters. The western reactionaries labeled themselves as being of the patriotic right, while Islamic reactionaries thought of themselves to be religious fundamentalists.
Regardless of political labels of “left” and “right,” the most strident individuals and groups around the world tend to have much in common. First, they resent change being foisted upon them without their say or control. Second, there is a romance that they have been deprived of better times that may or may not having ever existed. These factors foster hatred and its byproducts. Often exaggeration and hyperbole are employed to justify their insecurities and outrage. Even some national leaders choose to substitute key words, such as “immigration,” with alarming labels such as “invasion.” Religious leaders succumb to temptation of referring to non-believers as “infidels” and “blasphemers.”
It doesn’t matter if one labels such hatred as “Islamic extremism” or “white supremacy” or some other kind of nativism, xenophobia, etc. All these groups share similar anxieties about their current conditions and about the future. Since all these individuals and organizations resent not having control of monumental change, they are tempted to consider radical countermeasures, including violence in extreme cases.
As such, we must expect repeated, unexpected wakeup calls. A professor once told our class that often massive change comes as a bang, but only after years of building factors. He likened the phenomenon as flipping a giant pancake. Before that pancake is flipped over, there are growing pressures from beneath that most people do not notice or cannot detect. What we witnessed in New Zealand last Friday is one of those pancakes flipping with a giant “FLOP!” wakening us to a new shared reality.
Given all of this, what can we do?
We need to better educate ourselves and others about unfamiliar people, their cultures and their circumstances. If we are unfairly benefitting from other people’s misery, we have a responsibility to rectify rather than ignore. Consumers need to be better aware of issues surrounding international supply chains. As citizens, we need to vote for and advocate to politicians and policy makers for wiser and less myopic relations with the rest of the world. We need to become knowledgeable about less familiar communities within our own borders.
There is no simple panacea. There is only long, slow hard work of better understanding, including getting information from new, unfamiliar sources.
Globalization with its massive waves of mindboggling change is upon us and the pace of change is escalating. To survive we need to better prepare for the future rather than hopelessly hanker for an imaginary past. That takes courage as well as effort. The question is whether we have the intellectual and emotional fortitude to move forward — or whether we will fall prey to our baser emotions of fear and hatred. Ultimately, it is up to us to decide what to do next.