It’s fashionable to blame social media for all kinds of ills, and that’s not entirely fair. Social media has been great for building up communities, and when it does what it’s supposed to do, it’s fantastic! I check my newsfeed a couple of times a day and always find an interesting link, intelligent analysis, or even something that makes me laugh amid all the doom and gloom. Social media is very much A Good Thing. But – and you knew there was going to be a but – there’s a needle in the biscuit barrel. I’ve written before about online decency and the beauty of the mute button, yet as time goes on, the ongoing, blatant venom and bile leaking out of keyboards around the world is starting to seem like a symptom of something much deeper than a pathological need for attention and inability to play nice with others.
It’s disturbing enough to see how emboldened the worst kind of bigots have become, those not even bothering to hide their racism, sexism, homophobia, and hate-fuelled attitudes that should rightly have been left long in the past. But haters gonna hate – these sort of troglodytes are nothing new.
However, great-to-middling minds are also now carping from the sidelines, playing to the peanut gallery because it’s all just a game. Who cares if X Party has done something good? Shout them down! Someone’s getting upset about a societal problem? Pfft, who cares? Let them go to the workhouses and decrease the surplus population! Caring is pathetic, and you can’t lose the game if you’ve decided not to play. There’s nothing groundbreaking about nihilism. It’s socio-political cowardice. Cynicism is a lazy excuse for people who recognise that society is flawed and sometimes broken, and who aren’t brave enough to jump in and try to fix it. Instead, they sit on the sidelines and mock anyone who dares to care.
We’re terrified of getting old, getting feeble, needing help, because we know that we’ll be on our own. We’re suffering a society-wide empathy shortage, where we punish people for being poor, for being sick, for being two pay cheques away from destitution, because we don’t realise that it could so easily be us. Instead of focusing on protecting a welfare safety net we’re all entitled to use – because we could well need to one day – there’s a nasty tone of “bring back the poorhouses”, as if only the threat of social exclusion is preventing a great swathe of society from jacking in their jobs and voluntarily trooping down to the unemployment line.
Part of it is understandable — it feels like we’re going nowhere. Empathy fatigue can happen to the best of us, when you have no choice but to temporarily shut down after reading yet another horror story about a homeless woman freezing to death, another petition to save a desperate asylum seeker from deportation, another picture of a child leaving a food bank. Why bother working and hoping for a better future when all you can see is progress being rolled back?
Because when enough people fight back, it can change society for the better. If you refuse to be bowed by cynicism, if you keep caring about people who are being forgotten or left behind, and if you refuse to withdraw from society, I promise you that you are making a difference. Across the country, there are people working quietly and constantly for a better future. You won’t see them yelling into a microphone at rallies or showboating in the town hall. They’re picking up messages for their neighbours, or helping out in the food bank, or even just making conversation with someone who feels horribly, desperately lonely. There’s a reason A Christmas Carol is a classic. The novel is an iron fist in a velvet glove, where the curmudgeonly misanthrope looks out of the window and sees terrible shades moaning in torment – nothing to do with demons or pitchforks but because they’re too late to help their fellow man. Weighed down by chains and safeboxes, they try to touch the living but are doomed to watch helplessly in the cold, unheard, unheeded, unmourned. Orwell wrote Dickens had the “face of a man who is generously angry” and he was right. Dickens saw what happens when people withdraw from the world and refuse to recognise our common humanity.
So let’s get out there and be the change we want to see.