Growing Friction Among Societies and What We Can Do About It
Back in 2003, I had the opportunity to give a talk looking at trends that would shape year 2030. The talk was a follow-on to my work as a member of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program. As part of the CDC Team, I had participated in the response to what initially was called “atypical febrile illness” and later came to be known as an outbreak Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
The international response to SARS was still fresh in my mind when I gave talk.
Back in 2003, I openly asked whether “Organizing by geographical borders would still be the predominant paradigm for societies” by 2030? I based this premise first on the increasing impact of the Internet on our lives — during the 1990s folks had talked about “going online” and the idea that one left the activities of the real-world to participate in digital “cyberspace” activities. Yet with the start of the 21st century it became more clear that there were not two different worlds, there simply was an overlapping of Internet activities on our physical world activities with increasing augmentation of what we humans could do.
Given that the Internet itself makes it hard to define where a packet of information is geographically — is it where it is sent from or received by — it was clear that geographical borders, in an Internet world, would become more porous and ambiguous with time.
Similarly having responded to SARS, it was clear that infectious diseases, public health events, and other bio-related activities do not stop at national borders. Part of what attracted me to work in public health was the view that it connects all of us humans together — you can’t build a wall or an isolated house on a hill or attempt to forego the reality that public health events half a world away can and will ultimately impact us. The health of the world matters and has long-lasting ripple effects on the economic, social, and political stability of communities.
In early 2003 the idea of “do-it-yourself bio” being available to individuals was mainly still a dream, yet it was clear the technology was going in a direction that would allow individuals to ultimately do what was only possible in expensive national or commercial labs at present. Much like the Internet, the rise of increasingly affordable and available DIY bio technologies would have the impact of making it harder to define where the sovereign border of one entity is and isn’t when it comes to responding to public health and other bio-related events.
Now, fifteen years later, I am concerned that as we transition from predominately organizing in the form of nation-states with sovereignty defined by geography to something else — not yet defined — that there is growing friction among societies in the process of determining what comes next?
At the Crossroads in Europe
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to travel for 24 days as a Marshall Memorial Fellow to Europe and meet with private and public sector leaders in Belgium, the United Kingdom, Montenegro, Poland, and Germany. Seventy years ago, in April 1948, the United States signed into law the European Recovery Program — known more popularly as the “Marshall Plan” — to help rebuild war torn Europe after World War II and put into place institutions that ideally would prevent another World War from ever happening again.
Over the next few months I’ll share posts providing individual observations from the different countries of Montenegro, Poland, and Germany — I have already posted on both Belgium and the United Kingdom — for this post however I wanted to share the central, macro-observation, I gained from the discussions.
Europe’s default state for the last 2,000+ years has been that of political instability.
Those of us who did not witness World War I or World War II, and for whom these are only references in a history text book, may look now at Europe and miss the centuries of conflict that occurred people with different languages and ethnic identities on that continent.
Some individuals posit the jagged geography of Europe compared to other continents contributes to the fragmentation of different peoples and identities. Other individuals post the different languages present add to the fragmentation. Most would agree the long history and series of grudges present make stability in Europe difficult. Regardless: Europe’s default state for the last 2,000+ years has been that of political instability.
After World War II, the United States and Europe committed to the task of putting in place two institutions in the hopes of providing artificial stability to the continent, namely:
(1) Dream of an EU — European Union to allow Europe to resolve economic and social differences in a peaceful forum, and
(2) NATO — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to provide the military force to protect Europe from external aggression.
And for the most part, these two organizations have succeed in such stability for the last 70 years. Given that the Balkans conflict in 1991–1999 was the first time a “heated” war occurred in Europe since World War II, that’s a fairly long period of relative stability despite the tensions of the Cold War.
I intentionally say “providing artificial stability to the continent” because it was only through continued investment in these two institutions did Europe avoid fragmentation and reverting back to old grudges and old conflicts among different identity groups. Granted these institutions are not perfect, and there are so valid concerns about the representative nature of members of the the European Union and their attentiveness to their constituents — yet such concerns should place renewed emphasis on improving the European Union vs. devolution of it.
Currently in 2018 and there appears to be a rise in nationalism (or tribalism disguised as nationalism for certain parts of a society) in different European countries. Interest is waning in providing the needed financial and political investments to make the European Union work. To wit the U.K.’s decision to exit the European Union.
There also are rising tensions between wealthier EU members and less wealthy ones over individual EU member national debt and declining economies. In addition there are rising tensions over immigration issues in different countries — giving rise to reactionary political movements in individual countries — combined with questions of whether the EU as a whole should have a holistic response to immigration.
In several regions, Europe’s support for belonging to a European Union appears to be waning. At the same time support for NATO is at a crossroads, both within Europe and for the United States — who for has “shouldered the bill” by a large for ensuring NATO had the military capabilities that it did. In return the United States gained allies in Europe, a robust economic trading partner, and most importantly protection against external instability in Europe that might pull the world into another World War.
War Among the Estates
While I mentioned that I would dive in future months into the observations I heard in individual countries in Europe, since this post focuses on the growing friction among societies I wanted to highlight that in every country I visited I heard a common refrain, namely:
Rising tensions between governments and the media over what was perceived as real news vs. misinformation or what some representatives considered adversarial reporting with a political slant.
I am not going to dive too much into the discussion in this post except to say this is a complicated area where clearly there are times when governments don’t want certain information about them published and thus mislabel media as being biased — and yet clearly there have also been times in the past when media outlets (at least in the United States in 1895–1898) “emphasized sensationalism over facts” according to an account of yellow journalism practices present at that time.
Nowadays the Internet seems predisposed to sharing sensationalistic emotions vs. in-depth facts. While it is great that anyone with a connection to draft a blog or post a video and most social media — at the same time the faceless nature of the Internet erodes human empathy. While sites exist to categorize data and information, and more and more scientific papers are now accessible when previously they were available only in physical form in libraries — so too are sites that can spread hate, stereotypes, or information that distances ourselves from people we perceive to be different than ourselves.
The underlining tensions between governments and the media (as the Fourth Estate) still exist and the public has a right to want to dive deeper on substantive issues that governments may not want to divulge. What is more troubling is the conflict is not just between governments and media outlets, but also between different parts of societies that support certain government leanings and media outlets — in fact in Poland a leader noted that it felt like there were at least two different societies attempting to exist in Poland with minimal interaction and conversations with each other.
The Internet can bring us together — yet it can also allow the devolution of social institutions that used to require us to interact in-person and have conversations as a way of social unity. Nowadays your friends, co-workers, media inputs, political interactions, and social interactions can all be mediated by the internet in such a way that they reinforce your world view, at expense of being exposed to other ideas and perspectives. Internet dialogues, which are often faceless, also devolve into negative emotions and in particular “shaming” of the outsider or the alien who is different — on both sides of the political aisle unfortunately — and the idea of pluralistic societies where it was okay to have different views seems to be eroding.
If civilization is when we don’t automatically kill the newcomer — or new idea — we’re becoming less civilized and more tribal in nature.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
In the past I have written about how we humans always seem to want to claim that this moment is the ultimate apex of something in human history: either something really good or something really bad. After all, it was Charles Dickens’ who observed in his “A Tale of Two Cities” (1859) that “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
So I do not want to conclude this post saying all is lost as organizing by geography becomes less relevant and with it some nation-states revert back to tribalism. Nor do I want to say all will be stable — certainly the history of Europe would suggest political instability as the default vs. the artificial period of stability since World War II.
What I do want to emphasize, as I have for some time, is that micro-level activity can become cumulative and larger than any of us.
Action 1: If enough positive #ChangeAgents start raising these questions, ideas, and possible solutions to “what comes next” for the decades ahead — and most importantly what social institutions will allow for the plurality of human co-existence and encourage peaceful resolution (and forgiveness) of disputes — than perhaps we have a lasting chance.
Action 2: The importance is focusing on being positive #ChangeAgents. Getting angry, sad, or giving in to hate and those detracting from co-existing removes our ability to empathize with others and strive to find the common humanity in us all.
Action 3: As Abraham Lincoln once noted: “I don’t like that man, I must get to know him better”. If we only take the time to get to know people we like, find caring, and find supportive of our world views than we reinforce an age-old human paradigm of “us vs. them” and miss the opportunity to try and find a merit of compassion or insight even in people we might not agree with in principle.
Personally, I’d like to think President Lincoln intentionally picked the word “know” because of its root in the Greek word gnósis, meaning knowledge gleaned from first-hand (personal) experience working or interacting with a person, thing, or system.
With this meaning, President Lincoln might intended getting to “know” someone better meant you have to interact and engage, even if you don’t like someone, with them as humans and a recognition that they we born, has a series of life experiences that shaped them, and ultimately will die (like us all) in time. In these experiences we humans are all the same.
So much has been achieved by humans working together over the last 70 years — as a species we have improved the public health and living conditions of many around world (though there is still much to be done). We have reduced infant mortality globally. We have become more aware of what is going on as well as the different issues and community identities of humans around the world. We have built interconnected technologies that allow us to talk to anyone around the world by phone (though we still have work to be done to connect the rest of the world to the Internet should they so desire).
And while human nature itself has not changed, we have found ways to co-exist as 7.6 billion people (up from 5.3 billion people in 1990–2.5 billion in 1950 — and just 1.8 billion one hundred years ago in 1918.
We are facing new and novel challenges unprecedented in human history, yet we need to recognize the lessons of history and of human nature, and strive to be brave, bold, and benevolent in finding ways wherever we can at the local level across organizations or sectors to build bridges.
Action 4: We need to find ways to benefit multiple groups, not just groups we self-identify with (lest we accelerate tribalism) or from which we benefit.
Action 6: We need to identify what choices we are making that are disconnecting ourselves from others vs. connecting ourselves with others, and strive to build bridges.
The reason why is simple: we and future generations deserve such a world.