When you think of what's best in life, what fills your mind? Is it a moment of kindness? A favourite meal? A lover? A parent? A child? A personal achievement? Or is it anger? Hate? An argument? Fighting? Hurt?
Most people will find their best moments in warmth, light, kindness and love. And yet we're living in an increasingly hostile, polarised world; one that sees anger and frustration on the rise, fear around every corner and dark clouds on the horizon. Whatever your political persuasion it must be worrying to see so much division.
In the recent US presidential election, voters spilt almost exactly down the middle and the same was true of June's Brexit vote in the UK. Both campaigns were often heated, sometimes hostile, and occasionally violent. They have left a lasting sense of division and the language of extremism has entered the mainstream. Ideas that were once the preserve of the Far-left or Far-right are now part of the national conversation, and history tells us we should be very concerned.
Remember What An Optimistic Campaign Felt Like?
Photo by Ragesoss via Wikimedia Commons
Society's sensible middle is what makes countries stable. The middle might sometimes swing a little right or left, but in general it provides stability that keeps a nation working towards the common good.
The sensible middle is fast disappearing. People are being won over to the more extreme ends of the left and right, leaving fewer and fewer in that moderate centre. When there are fewer things that unite people than divide them, and that middle ground is deserted, trouble always follows.
The worrying thing is that there are some people who relish trouble. Steve Bannon, President-elect Donald Trump's proposed White House Chief of Strategy, has reportedly said,
"Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that's my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today's establishment."
This view is remarkably similar to those of Russian ideologue, Alexander Dugin, who believes that the nation state is an artificial construct and needs to be destroyed.
Dugin's writings have inspired many on the Far-right. Nafeez Ahmed has written an interesting piece on the rise of the Far-right and the manner in which different groups are communicating and coordinating around the world. You can read it here. There may be Far-left groups doing similar things, but if they are, they're operating well below the radar.
A Britain divided against itself, an America looking inward, citizen against citizen, can only be good for those who would seek to undermine the institutions that make our democratic societies such wonderful places to live when compared to so much of the world.
It's hard to persuade people to be passionate about moderation, to be enthusiastic about the sensible middle, but it is the common centre that keeps society from disintegrating.
It's also difficult not to get angry about things we see in the world, but it's worth keeping in mind that today's fact-lite, opinion heavy media is reflecting and sometimes magnifying the tone of our national debate. If people abandon the sensible middle, our media will leave it too, and the messages we get will push us further apart.
I've previously written about the problems of social media, but when you next see something that outrages you; consider the source. For all their flaws, mainstream organisations have internal procedures that ensure a reasonable level of accuracy. Some alternative news sources publish stories that are manifestly untrue, mixing them with honest ones. The 50-50 blend of fact and fiction was a classic KGB misinformation tactic during the Cold War; people would relate the true stories to what they'd seen elsewhere and then assume that everything published by the propaganda outlet was true.
Other outlets that people are increasingly relying on are fronts masquerading as respectable news sources. The Internet has made it easy for people to build glossy, professional websites and disguise who's really behind the information being fed into our lives. These 'front' websites can be operated by extremist organisations, who may wittingly or unwittingly seek to sow discontent and division that benefits foreign powers who profit from internal strife in the West.
Who benefits when we can no longer trust the establishment, the media, or each other? Who profits from the abandonment of the middle ground? Check your source, particularly if it's a story that's evoking a strong emotional response; that's exactly what propaganda is designed to do. News should be informative, not emotive.
With elections approaching in France and Germany, we can expect to see a lot of heated debate. I hope that the French and German people learn from Brexit and the US election and chose to unite around their common values rather than allow themselves to be divided by hate. There are those who will seek to stoke anger and frustration, and if they're successful we may find ourselves with fewer opportunities to do whatever it is we best enjoy in life, and warmth, light, kindness and love will be replace by strife.