Lately, my social media feed has been buzzing. A few incidents back home seemed to hint that people were becoming more ugly and ungracious.
- People were abusing a “citizen journalism” website, posting irresponsible photos and distorting facts that had caused grief to others. This led to a petition to shut the site down.
- Some bloggers were causing alarm by fabricating untruths about public policies.
- Foreign workers who were planning to celebrate their national day in the city had to cancel it after the organizers received several phone threats.
Many people have spoken out against these acts, saying they do not represent or define us, and we should not condone them (which I agree). They add that the schools must educate our young and inculcate the right values (which I also agree). And parents must do likewise at home (yes!).
It’s tempting to think that these measures will address the issues. And to be fair, they probably will, to some extent.
At the same time, we should also ask: Are we indeed becoming more ugly and ungracious? And if so, why?
In pondering possible underlying reasons for such behaviors, it struck me that they were not new behaviors. In some way or another, they had always been present in the larger society.
- On irresponsible “citizen journalism”, the precursor to this were things like paparazzi and investigative journalism. In fact, it’s interesting how we feel that one form of it is wrong, yet we have no issue enjoying the other form every night on TV. We even legitimize the latter by arguing that celebrities and public figures being who they are, the loss of privacy comes with the job. But really, how different are the two forms?
- On the issue of fabricating untruths, from the government to business to the media, who hasn’t been regularly distorting facts whether in big or subtle ways to suit their own agendas?
- Likewise, when coercive threats and bullying present themselves in the open, we find it repulsive and terrible. Yet, this is not new either. It has routinely gone on in business, legal, politics and geopolitics. We simply turn a blind eye, or we accept it as a way of life.
So these behaviors have always been present in the larger society. As social creatures, we are always drawing cues from the larger system about what are acceptable behaviors and norms. When some forms of behaviors are allowed to continue without people speaking out against them, the implicit message is that others forms of it is fair game. And so, Monkey see, Monkey do.
The other thing is that in the past, many tools of power lay in the hands of the organized few, for example, in government, business or the media. The major turning point happens when increasingly more of these tools end up in your hands and mine. For example, social media confers in everyday people the sort of power (network power and broadcast power) they never had. And so, what Money used to see, Money now have the means to do!
At the heart of this, is that people are wielding power that they do not know how to use responsibly. And more so than not, we are likely to see more of such behaviors.
If you accept this theory, it is not a stretch to imagine what other trends might crop up in the future. All we need to do is to look for past abuses when power lay in the hands of a privileged few, and multiply it many times more when the power becomes available to everyone.
Without noticing such larger systemic effects, it would be naive to believe that adding values education in the school system alone will solve the problem.
When you look at it this way, these are certainly not easy problems to solve. At the same time, there is hope too. Because we are part of the system, problems that start with us can also end with us. However, change never starts with someone else; it always starts with us. And as many of us will need to see ourselves as part of that change.