By understanding the
psychological buttons they’re pressing, we can stop demagogues from destroying our
By George Monbiot,
published in the Guardian 2nd October 2019
Is this democracy’s death spiral? Are
we falling, in this and other countries, into a lethal cycle of fury and
reaction, that blocks the reasoned conversation on which civic life depends?
In every age there have been political
hucksters, using aggression, lies and outrage to drown out reasoned argument.
But not since the 1930s have so many succeeded. Trump, Johnson, Narendra Modi,
Jair Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison, Rodrigo Duterte, Nicolas Maduro, Viktor Orban
and many others have discovered that the digital age offers rich pickings. The
anger and misunderstanding that social media generates, exacerbated by troll
factories, bots and covertly-funded
political advertising, spills
into real life.
Today, politicians and commentators
speak a language of violence that was unthinkable a few years ago. In the UK,
Boris Johnson mocks
the memory of
the murdered MP Jo Cox. Nigel Farage, talking of civil servants, promises
Brexit’s done, we will take the knife to them.” Brendan
O’Neill, editor of the magazine Spiked, that has
received funding from
the Koch brothers, told
the BBC that
there should be riots over Brexit’s delay. They must all know, particularly in
view of the
threats and assaults
suffered by female MPs, that violent language licences violence. But these
statements seem perfectly pitched to trigger unreasoning aggression.
Surely voters must now wake from this
nightmare, dismiss those who have manufactured our crises, and restore the
peaceful, reasoned politics on which our security depends? Unfortunately, it
might not be as simple as that.
Several fascinating branches of
neuroscience and psychology suggest that threat and stress in public life are
likely to be self-perpetuating. The more threatened we feel, the more our minds
are overwhelmed by involuntary reflexes and unthinking reaction.
The strangest of these effects is described
by the neuroscientists Stephen Porges and Gregory Lewis. They show that when we feel threatened, we literally cannot hear
calm, conversational voices. When we feel safe, the muscles in the middle ear
contract, with an effect like tightening the skin of a drum. This shuts out
deep background sounds, and allows us to tune into the frequencies used in
ordinary human speech.
But when we feel threatened, it is the deep background noises we
need to hear. In evolutionary time, it was these sounds (roars, bellows, the
padding of paws or rumble of hooves, thunder, a flood pulse in a river) that
presaged danger. So the muscles of the middle ear relax, shutting out
conversational frequencies. In the political context, if people are shouting at
us, moderating voices are, physically, tuned out. Everyone has to shout to be
heard, ramping up the level of stress and threat.
we feel particularly threatened or angry, a fight or flight response kicks in,
overwhelming our capacity for reason – a phenomenon some psychologists call amygdala
amygdala sits at the base of the brain and channels strong emotional signals
that can override the prefrontal cortex, preventing us from making rational
decisions. We lash out irrationally, saying stupid things that then trigger
amygdala hijack in other people. That’s more or less how social media works.
All this is exacerbated by the frantic
and blinkered way in which we seek a place of safety when we feel insecure.
Security is what psychologists call a
classic “deficit value”: one
whose importance to us escalates when we feel it is deficient, shutting out
other values. This allows the very people who made us insecure to present
themselves as the “strongmen” (always, in reality, the weakest men imaginable)
to whom we can turn for refuge from the chaos they created. Disturbingly, a survey
by the Hansard Society in
April revealed that 54% of respondents now agree with the statement “Britain
needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules”, while only 23% disagree.
I suspect the demagogues – or their
advisers – know what they’re doing. Either instinctively or explicitly, they
understand the irrational ways in which we react to threat, and know that, to
win, they must stop us from thinking. Why does Johnson appear to want a no deal
Brexit so badly? Perhaps because it generates the stress and threat on which
his success depends. If we don’t break this spiral, it could drag us down to a
very dark place indeed.
So what do we do? How, in particular,
do we discuss genuinely alarming situations, like Brexit or climate breakdown,
without triggering threat responses? The first thing the science tells us is
this: treat everyone with respect. The stupidest thing you can possibly do, if
you want to save democracy, is to call your opponent gammon.
Never get drawn into a shouting match,
however offensive the other person might be. Don’t be distracted by attempts to
manufacture outrage: bring the conversation back to the topics you want to
discuss. We should emulate the calm strength with which Greta
Thunberg responds to
the tidal wave of nastiness she faces: “As you may have noticed, the haters are as active as ever – going after me,
my looks, my clothes, my behaviour and my differences … But don’t waste your
time giving them any more attention.”
After studying the success or failure
of other political movements, Extinction Rebellion has developed a protocol for
looks like a model of good political psychology. It uses humour to deflect
aggression, distributes leaflets explaining the action and apologising for the
disruption, trains activists to resist provocation, and runs de-escalation
teaching people to translate potential confrontations into reasoned
conversation. It urges
towards everyone, including the police.
By setting up people’s assemblies, it
seeks to create a civic space in which other voices can be heard. As another
paper by Stephen Porges, the
neuroscientist whose work has done so much to explain our reflexes, points out,
our brains don’t allow us to experience compassion for others until we feel
safe. Creating calm spaces in which to explore our differences is an essential
step towards rebuilding democratic life.
All this might sound like common sense. It is. But understanding how our minds function helps us to see when they are unconciously working for the demagogues. Breaking the spiral means restoring the mental state that allows us to think.