I was in Mainz recently and went to the Gutenberg museum to learn about the first printing press. It is an astonishingly simple machine and yet it changed the way that we think and the way we act in the world. The mass production of printed literature tapped into the restlessness of the 15th and 16th centuries and gave strength to the political and religious undercurrents that were to fatally undermine the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church. The printing press also worked more subtly, by focussing our attention on the printed word as a means to express and share our thoughts clearly and carefully in the public realm and shifted our culture towards a more scientific and rational approach to the world.
Internet communications are now having a similarly radical effect on society. We are experiencing profound political unrest associated, this time, with a shake-up in the world of our feelings. The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum have taken place in a world where feelings are being demonstrated and manipulated like never before. Adam Curtis’s new documentary ‘HyperNormalisation’ propounds the view that our public world is now a place of theatre. Absurd means of communication like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have become a stage where we can all strut our stuff. These new media are disciplined by algorithms that mean we associate only with people who share our views, creating unbalanced and unchallenged perspectives, as the rewards of the stage encourage more and more extreme pronouncements in order to attract attention. Shock, horror, omg are the lifeblood of these media. It cannot therefore be surprising that we become obsessed with our own public image, and lost in a make believe world of politicians who naively say they can make it all right. It may also play a part in why we are failing to act on essential truths like climate science. Truth is a devalued currency on the stage. Presentation is all important. Witness the popularity of Boris, Nigel and Donald.
It is clear that we will not wind the clock back, or the printing press or the internet. We must learn to live with the realities of our power to communicate. And part of this must be becoming aware of the importance of the world of our feelings. Many of us are aware that dark forces have been released through recent political campaigning. We have taken the lid off things that have previously been suppressed, like the fear of the outsider. Some people are saying that we should have talked about our feelings about immigration more openly and been less quick to take sides. The liberal consensus can be something of a straitjacket. Likewise we were clearly not aware of the deep alienation that was setting in through economic inequality. The liberal elite blithely assumed we would ‘muddle through’ or ‘trickle down’ or some other vacuous metaphor. These processes have given rise to a culture that is now deeply fearful and the essential trust that binds our political community together is under threat. Moreover, and of no less importance, it seems that very few indeed seem to have heard the cries of the non-human world, which is proceeding hell-bent towards destruction as the earth warms and humans increase their territory by the day.
It is time for us to become mature in the realm of our feelings. Human beings are not as rational as we have claimed. The true measure of progress for human society may be, not Gross Domestic Product, but the development of shared empathy. Unless we can come to terms with our feelings and how to manage them well, then we do not deserve to flourish on earth.
Chris Sunderland is the author of ‘Rise Up with Wings like Eagles’ to be published on December 9th by Earth Books. This book argues that the earth is at a crucial moment in its life and that humans need to ‘feel our way’ towards the future if we are to find justice, well-being and harmony with the earth.
An extract from the introduction to Chapter Two:
In this chapter I am going to suggest that we no longer recognize the importance of feelings in our public life. This is not to say that we have become stoics or something, whereby we suppress feelings, but it is rather that we no longer acknowledge the importance of feelings in shaping our societies. The attempt to found society on science and reason alone has been doggedly pursued by academics and policymakers now for several hundred years, but it has led us down a very strange path whereby feelings and other associated deep-level motivations are seen as trivial compared to ideas. I will argue in this chapter that our emotions are still the most important factor in shaping human community life and need to be recognized as such.