Drinking Our Post-Truth Kool-Aid

It is intriguing, if terribly, sad to see a stark shift to pessimism and fatalism in the wake of the US election. I’ve noticed, and felt in myself, a kind of despair and helplessness as developed countries across the world turn to poisonous authoritarian political leadership.

My deeper sadness and frustration, though, comes out of what appears to be the rapid waning of a reflective moment in which people seemed to be taking a collective responsibility for this. “Gee, maybe we missed something,” said Democrats and liberals. There were a few voices suggesting that slagging Republicans might not be in our collective interests, and that maybe the mean-spiritedness of our politics was something that everyone owned — not just Trump supporters.

I saw a flicker of hope in calls for reason, solidarity and empathy as political values to replace the toxic soup we’re in. Alas we seem instead to have either accepted “post-truth” politics as inevitable, or worse yet, legitimate because our “outrage” excuses us from being civil or reasonable. So we inflame hostility instead of seeking to heal it. We love what makes us feel justified and morally superior, more than we love the pursuit of truth, or indeed the pursuit of much of anything that might serve our collective best interests. It’s a big, enthusiastic march to hell.

“Drinking the kool-aid” is common vernacular for accepting an idea with a kind of religious fervor that dampens reason. Some (but not all) may be aware that it alludes to the Jonestown Massacre of 1978: the staggering mass suicide of some 900 religious cult members some of who — yep — drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid to end it all. While evidence and survivors’ accounts suggest that many died under duress, others committed suicide willingly. Thus “drinking the kool-aid” doesn’t just describe buying in to a cult-life belief as an individual. Drinking kool-aid isn’t a lone act. It’s a social one. Mass delusion followed by mass suicide.

How have we become convinced, en masse, that disrespect and vitriol make for good politics? There are two forms of delusion at work here: the delusions of the embittered who think they will be saved by authoritarian leaders, and the delusions of those who believe that effective opposition to this movement takes the form piling on to the existing wealth of ad hominem memes and snarky commentary on the internet.

There are many possible explanations for our lining up at the Kool-Aid cauldron of political incivility. I’d like to offer one: a loss of collective memory. We’re losing the stories we need to connect our political behaviours to their consequences. I was born 25 years after the end of World War 2, and have some recollections of Remembrance Day as a visceral experience for the adults around me. I was a kid and I didn’t really get it. But there were people in my family and immediate circle who could speak of world wars in ways that ingrained a healthy respect for what is at stake in armed conflicts. [1] My own kids and their cohort are that much further removed from the influences of veterans, family members, teachers and public figures who could communicate, widely and in intimate terms, the real costs of violent global conflict. Lost children. Lost husbands. Rations of goods that we take for granted every day. PTSD. Imminent fear of violent death, rape, poverty, starvation and cold.

In the West, as the stories of veterans and other real people affected by the real consequences of global conflict fade, we’re left with an unacknowledged, collective sense that war is a kind of video game. There have been studies and accompanying commentary that video games do not cause players to become more violent.[2][3][4] If this is the case — if we indeed do not translate screens to reality — there’s no reason to think that we translate real events on screens to reality either. So violent conflict is readily abstracted to “something that happens to people in Syria.” It’s accompanied by a vague and helpless kind of empathy, but it’s an abstract empathy. It doesn’t carry the weight and power of having stories of human suffering — your own family’s suffering, or that of people you meet and talk to every day.

In short, because the real consequences of violent conflict are not part of our lived experience, and are no longer a part of our collective memory in the West, we’ve gotten really stupid. Like drinking-the-Kool-Aid stupid. Like kids playing shooter games, we engage in all manners of incivility and violence, and then turn the screen off and go get ourselves some lunch. As if the satisfying game of slagging our political opponents is not contributing to a downward road from incivility of words to incivility of deeds.

Endnotes

[1] I am also old enough to remember a kind of heavy fear around the Cold War and the prospect of nuclear attacks. A blast from my past: The 1983 movie, “The Day After.” It is one of a number of many movies and documentaries reflecting the public fear and pessimism of the era. It was controversial when released.

[2] I don’t know enough about these debates to weigh in on the evidence, one way or another, but it’s out there for those who would pursue it. Here’s a popular press article, anyway: The Truth About Video Games and Gun Violence.

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