From violent attacks on innocent civilians, to extreme political voices finding mainstream support, to a widening gap between the rich and poor playing out in anger and scapegoating – suddenly everything seems to be about extremes. Why is that?
The trend mirrors something that’s been going on online for a while.
The lightning-fast growth of the internet has forced us to adapt quickly to handle a never-ending feed of information that our brains weren’t designed to cope with. To survive, we’ve learned to filter out run-of-the-mill, inoffensive, vanilla messages and scan instead for ideas that stand out.
To the point that now, to make any impact at all, you have to say something designed to get a reaction.
This seems to apply to almost every area of our lives. Even this research on online dating found that “people who divided opinion did far better than those who everyone agreed were cute.”
Technology is disconnecting us, too. Mobiles and the internet have made it possible to reach any other human being, anywhere in the world. But they’ve also allowed us to distance ourselves from the ones in the same room, house, school or office.
Why meet up when you can call? Why call when you can email? Why email when you can text? Why send four different texts when you can put a picture on Facebook, and all your friends will see it?
Let’s be honest. A lot of the time we’re guilty of using technology to avoid dealing with other people up close. To sidestep hearing their voices, seeing their facial expressions, dealing with their inconvenient emotional reactions or opposing viewpoints. In so many ways, our new, connected status has made our world smaller than ever.
And these technological barriers make it easy to misplace the thing that makes us, humans, extraordinary: our empathy.
Without it, we’re quicker to attack, hate, and take extreme ‘them and us’ viewpoints. Or, as this study found, simply to say and do things on the internet that we would never say or do face to face, when we would have to witness the pain we’d caused another person.
Two of the more horrible results of our nosediving empathy levels are the growing use of social media by trolls to target people with hate speech and threats, and by extremist groups to target, recruit and radicalise new members.
So how do we get our empathy back?
For longer than we’ve known how to speak, human beings have been telling stories.
Sharing our experiences, person to person, has helped us to imagine and understand one another’s problems, successes and feelings, and made it possible for us to learn from each another, form relationships, build communities, cultures and nations – all the things that make us different from animals living simply on their instincts.
Last weekend I saw writer and performer Inua Ellams host An Evening with an Immigrant. His aim was to “put a human face” on the immigration debate by telling his own story. Here’s a tiny bit of it:
“To support our appeal, all these people I’d worked with wrote letters to the Home Office saying ‘Inua – he’s alright. He’s never stolen anything. Except those little blue pens from Argos, which are technically free anyway, so…'”
Inua told us about his father’s exile from Nigeria after standing up to extremism, the racist abuse and violent threats his family faced in Dublin, the sale of their identities by dodgy ‘immigration lawyers’ when they came to the UK… and the surreal experience of being invited to meet the Queen a week after receiving a deportation notice.
His tale was brave and funny and touching and real and – like all good stories – completely, unmistakably human.
When I left the theatre, I felt better: more connected. And worse: more sad. But mostly I felt frustrated, because that little room was too small for everyone in the UK to have heard his story.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had some way of spreading stories like that to everyone, all over the country, and even the world? I thought.
Oh wait – we do. We’re just using it for all the wrong things.