Here is a synthesis of the Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn Listening Posts held in London in 2018.
Past and Present Values
We live in a confused world, unsure whether the 21st Century heralds progress or decline. The depiction of civilisation as unfailingly progressive protects us from facing up to many existential threats.
We look to the past for answers but nothing of ‘scriptural’ authority feels relevant to today. The more we read the so-called gurus, the more the answers are shown up as empty marketing hype. We don’t know what kind of world we should be preparing our children for.
Compared to us, the next generation have never had it so easy or so hard. We face a conflict between ‘survivor guilt’ (shame for the relative comfort of our lives) and ‘survivor pride’ (for living skills acquired through overcoming unfairness and adversity).
The same comparison between the past and the present indicates a shift in what was previously tolerated, repressed and ignored. The application of current social mores to past events highlights the complex ambiguity surrounding flirtatious sexual contact between men and women, involving many sources of power for both parties. There is irony in the use of #metoo as a slogan for a worthy cause that has been tailgated by other less worthy affectations of victimhood. However, we all have a history that involves shameful conduct of one sort or another (it is called our ‘youth’).
Macrocosm and microcosm
We struggle to think clearly about such issues when there is so much confusion flying around. It feels as though we are on the edge of chaos. This is a projection of our own fears of disintegration and death that make the world feel a menacing place to live in. Yet denial of responsibility and scapegoating are necessary defences for many and cannot simply be torn down. What better prescription can we offer others for their old age and infirmity?
Because we have no answers, we disengage psychologically and emotionally. But this is just hiding under the bedclothes; it does not make us any safer. By retreating to our inner circles, to shut the world out, we encounter the same hardships of mutuality inside as we experience outside: our families are a microcosm of the society from which we have withdrawn. They remind us that, to be seen and valued for who we really are, we have to see and value others in return.
If we will not do this, we become invisible to each other even within our families. It is too easy to escape back to work via our phones, and then plug in to other screens for relaxation. Our dependency on technology creates an addiction, leaving us unable to step off the quickening treadmill of demand and desire.
In the networked society brought about by technology, we are sold the illusion of freedom from hierarchies of the old order but have replaced it with the greater tyranny of self-regulation under the all-seeing eye of big data. We fear that it sees how predictable and compulsive and venal we are. It offers us the promise of knowing what we want better than we know ourselves but also carries the threat of manipulating our thoughts and feelings. We worry about intrusion and being spied on even as we carry around the gadgets that do the spying.
To evade surveillance, we seek ‘personal space’ where we can slow down and take a breath. We organise our holidays as episodes over which we have complete choice and control. But our phones come with us.
Engagement with social media, social networks and society is exhausting. The cheap sentiments of ‘love’, ‘like’, ‘friend’ and ‘follow’ have become detached from the hard work and personal cost that are required to sustain them. They offer shallow commitments with no mutuality yet they avoid the misinterpretation and giving offence that deeper engagement would risk.
Our relationships with employers and other organisations also require us to ‘love’ them and give them good ratings if we want to get on: if we point out any blemishes, there will be reprisals. In parallel, politicians offer empty slogans and pseudo-compassion as if these were solutions in themselves to the problems and injustices we see all around us. Cuts have consequences. We live in a world of fantasy announcements with no bearing on reality. Newspapers are now like novels: fictions of what might have happened but didn’t.
Leaders as projections of society
Leaders tackle trivial concerns to distract our attention from difficult, important and urgent issues. They present themselves as confident, clear and certain in response to our anxiety, confusion and doubt but they are hollow men and women. We cannot agree on what matters. No one is trusted to mean what they say. Mistakes are never acknowledged. Problems are never faced, only deferred. The world feels stuck, with no way forward. We seem to have forgotten how to be playful, experimental and curious.
Our retreat from the real to the virtual renders us voyeurs, not participants, in the social sphere. We develop a mask to protect ourselves and escape the reprisals of self-expression, but we cannot resist the opportunity from behind the mask to submit our cyber-self to some cosmetic surgery. Reality is airbrushed lest it mar the ideal image we confect. We externalise our envy and rivalry onto others. Yet the incorporation of fantasy into our identity makes it harder for us to sustain an integrated self in relation to others.
To survive the violence of social interaction, many people take cover in group identity, submitting to tribal stereotypes rather than thinking and acting for themselves. Disowning our voice strips us of agency, forcing us to cling to our tribal doctrines and shout down the other voices. You can no longer express an opinion from outside the group to which it relates. Attack is the best form of defence against thinking.
So two cheers for democracy, which gives authority to one group opinion and takes it away from others. By giving equal votes to the well-informed, the uninformed and the misinformed, we cannot be sure which group will be chosen. In the aftermath of each decision, we are all doomed to learn again what we already know about group relations.
We value the Listening Post as a source of democratic data and an anchor in times of change. Our anxiety can’t be treated by artificial intelligence or machine: we just want to talk and be heard. Reflection feels like important work; while having conversations for their own sake, just staying in the moment, is an enduring pleasure in a turbulent age.
Wishing you all the opportunity to make room for real conversations with friends and family over the holiday season.