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Posted on May 7th, 2024

The Soft Core of the Earth – Learn to Hate

Writing for The Atlantic recently, on the “self-fulfilling prophecy” of pessimism, doomsday thinking, and tribalism, David Brooks examines the swing from communalism to the individualism of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, to a new wave of communalism today, one with deep crevasses between camps, one that is “socially conscious and political.” (Robert Putnam chronicled this on a larger scale over a period of 125 years in his book “The Upswing.”) Today, according to Brooks, people define their identities largely about what and who they’re against. The general sentiment is that “[t]oday’s communal culture is based on a shared belief that society is broken, systems are rotten, the game is rigged, injustice prevails, the venal elites are out to get us; we find solidarity and meaning in resisting their oppression together.” The paradox is that “both sides” feel that way. The problem is that it leaves no room for compromise or understanding.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that mirrors flip left to right – even though, regardless of your camp, it probably feels flipped from up to down. What do you call it when two groups of people see the same problems in mirrored fashion? What does that mean for society when we’re collectively lost in translation?

The problem, for Brooks, is the appeal of negativity and hatred to defining oneself. The ability to feel and voice that your thinking and your ideals are the only ones reasonable or even fathomable leads to the further fracture between ways of thinking and understanding shared social problems. “I can see why, in a lonely world, people would embrace the community that collective negativity offers,” said Brooks. Why we’re lonely can be ruminated on without limit, but many social scientists from Durkheim to Fromm to Slater and on have ventured guesses. It just may be that we’re entering a new period of anomie, largely ushered in by technology, unlimited and unedited access to vitriol and skewed opinions; simply a 21st Century version of an old problem.

If we’re not careful, we’ll destroy ourselves. (Image comes courtesy of Berke Arakli, retrieved from here)

But beyond loneliness, which is both an individual and societal issue, there is some tension in Brooks’ concerns about the new communal age he claims we’ve entered, but only because the worst aspects of individualism still linger, providing the connective tissue for the problems we now face at the collective level. How does the ever-privatized self find assurance and affirmation? If “[p]aranoia is the opiate of those who fear they may be insignificant,” yet significance is found through paranoia, how do people really understand the state of things, let alone who they are and why they believe what they believe?

Ultimately, and this is nothing new, that the negativity and pessimism of our time is conditioning us all, regardless of political or ideological persuasion, and that conditioning further binds us to our tribes. “The problem is that if you mess around with negative emotions, negative emotions will mess around with you, eventually taking over your life.” Talk of mental health crises need little further analysis. Once everything becomes existential, once everything requires an immediate defense – or attack – and once everything is only understood in a black and white way, it is bound to be self-defeating and all-consuming, even if it’s not immediately recognizable to us. The framing, for us, becomes one of trauma, thus rendering certain forms of actual traumas as insignificant based on their ideological roots, yet the individual emotional crises just persist.

Brooks warns that “if you interpret the world through the lens of collective trauma, you may become overwhelmed by self-perpetuating waves of fear, anger, and hate. You’re likely to fall into a neurotic spiral, in which you become more likely to perceive events as negative, which makes you feel terrible, which makes you more alert to threats, which makes you perceive even more negative events, and on and on.”

And while Brooks has concerns for both the political left and right, his biggest warning is to the left, perhaps because he sees the possibility for redemption if they course correct soon. On this subject, he speaks to the cultural parlance and boogeymen of the day, suggesting that “[a] discourse that was intended partly to empower people who suffer from structural disadvantages, by revealing the underlying forces that produced their circumstances, may end up doing the exact opposite: It enshrouds people in their own victimhood, and in the feeling that they have no control over their life.” In other words, sometimes the intent and outcome do not align, and the collateral damage is self-inflicted. Negativity and pessimism fester.

“We have produced a culture that celebrates catastrophizing. This does not lend itself to effective strategies for achieving social change. The prevailing assumption seems to be that the more bitterly people denounce a situation, the more they will be motivated to change it. But history shows the exact opposite to be true.” The left both impedes the progress they claim to seek and enables those they seek to stop, or at least that’s the outcome that has been rendered by the new communalism born of pessimism, according to Brooks. The right he presents less direct critique, but also holds less hope for him. But be clear, “catastrophizing” is endemic to all political persuasions.

Near the close of his essay, he muses on what might come in November 2024, saying that “[t]he thought of a second Trump term appalls and terrifies me. But to the more apocalyptic and Chicken Little–ish of my progressive friends, I’ll say this: You’re only helping him. Donald Trump thrives in an atmosphere of menace. Authoritarianism flourishes amid pessimism, fear, and rage. Trump feeds off zero-sum thinking, the notion that society is war—us-versus-them, dog-eat-dog. The more you contribute to the culture of depressive negativity, the more likely Trump’s reelection becomes.” When we’ve all learned to hate in such an all-encompassing way, it’s hard to see past that fog.

Marco Esquandoles
Alone on an Island


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