No fewer than seven Listening Posts were held in London over the course of 2017. Here is a synthesis of what they tell us:
We are experiencing global tension over boundaries: a conflict between social globalisation and political nationalism. These conflicts, revealed by the votes for Trump and Brexit, are contained versions of civil war, leaving us in an unstable, bipolar state of collective melancholy and mania.
Our avoidance of conflict represents a retreat from society: we participate only through our absence and invisibility. However, we remain connected to society virtually via social media. This form of engagement with the world is a kind of voyeurism: as well as displaying an inauthentic ‘presentational’ self, we operate a second, undisclosed, anonymous self. From this place of relative safety, we are able to continue the conflict in secret, as recruits into the ranks of ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ forces. From here, we experience the forbidden pleasure of anomie – a virtual mob exercising power without responsibility, becoming social fascists even as we espouse the politics of democracy.
As keyboard warriors, our heightened language of allegiance masks our loneliness; our heightened expressions of power mask our impotence. We project our unwanted feelings of humiliation, shame, anger, resentment and jealousy onto those we oppose. By this means, we experience either envy and rage as so-called ‘victims’ or guilt and shame as so-called ‘perpetrators’.
These battles create a ‘social warming’ in parallel with global warming – the temperature of civic feeling is rising. Globalisation evokes in us the archetypal childhood nightmare: that another sibling is favoured over us. The strength of our infantile feelings limit the complexity of our opinions and make it hard to find any middle ground. We don’t know for how much longer we can contain our feelings; we feel on the verge of exploding at any minute, impelled to reveal in an uncontained manner how we really feel, who we really are.
However, these ideas of our own identities are both fixed and inconclusive. We are psychologically blitzed by a fear of misrule, anomie and the breakdown of civil society, leaving us overwhelmed and unable to work out what to do. Everything is topsy-turvy; we cannot differentiate truth from fiction, right from wrong, sanity from madness, friend from foe. The parental attention we experience may be loving or abusive; we cannot tell the two apart. We feel unable to rely on the safety of the familiar as we would hope.
This is like growing up in a family without parents – we are free to act without commitment or responsibility. We feel leaderless and abandoned, left like orphans to fight among ourselves. So we grow up without having to grow up, never taking responsibility for deciding what to do.
Our withdrawal from society has led to a hollow outward-facing social identity masking an introspective self-absorption. This has left us feeling not just isolated but invisible: we fear no one will catch us when we fall. We feel shame for being led by our worst selves, putting our own interests ahead of others in the queue, ensuring our own happiness and prosperity at the expense of others less fortunate than ourselves. We employ various forms of ‘cladding’ around our behaviour to keep inconvenient truths out of sight and mind.
We have lost faith in institutions to represent our interests. We sense that change will only come from the citizen level of society; we no longer believe it will come from our social or democratic institutions. Yet we remain fearful of change, always killing new ideas in case they damage what we cherish about our identity.
Yet, in the despair of disaster, we find cause for hope. In empathising with the plight of others, we cannot maintain simplistic divides between a ‘them’ deserving to be killed or hated or feared and an ‘us’ deserving to be loved and admired. This requires us to look within ourselves and see where we may be wrong; to acknowledge the bad in ourselves as well as the good in others; and to rediscover a good self that will stand up to the internal threat (posed by our worst self) and turn outwards to embrace the external opportunity – rejoining society to do what we can to create the society we want.