I don't expect to hear political wisdom from Hollywood movie stars, but I loved this quote from Will Smith on yesterday's The Late Show, about US race relations (from 5:23): 'When I hear people say "it's worse than it's ever been", I really disagree completely. It's clearly not as bad as it was in the 60s, and it's certainly not as bad as it was in the 1860s'. Then this line, which deserves its own bumper sticker or hashtag or something: 'Racism isn't getting worse, it's getting filmed'.
Yes, racism is being exposed more often in the US thanks to the ubiquity of small cameras and the internet, and that both helps expose prejudice but also increases the feeling that something major is amiss. It's called availability bias, 'a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person's mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision...people tend to heavily weigh their judgments toward more recent information, making new opinions biased toward that latest news.' I think this is the point Rodger Shanahan was reaching for last week: we would feel better about our world, or certainly less alarmed, if we stepped back from the torrent of headlines and got some historical perspective.
Cameras, the internet, and most importantly, social media. This is what’s new. This is what’s different. How we’re getting information, what information is reaching us, and most importantly, what information and views we are most rewarded for sharing.
In the attention economy, people are rewarded for extremism. They are rewarded for indulging their worst biases and stoking other people’s worst fears. They are rewarded for portraying the world as a place that is burning to the ground, whether it’s because of gay marriage, or police violence, or Islamic terrorism, or low interest rates. The internet has generated a platform where apocalyptic beliefs are celebrated and spread, and moderation and reason is something that becomes too arduous and boring to stand.
And this constant awareness of every fault and flaw of our humanity, combined with an inundation of doomsayers and narcissistic nihilists commanding our attention space, is what is causing this constant feeling of a chaotic and insecure world that doesn’t actually exist.
And then: it’s this feeling that is the cause of the renewed xenophobia and nationalism across the western world. It’s this feeling of insecurity and chaos that is igniting the platforms of divisive strong-men like Trump, Erdogan, and Putin. It’s this feeling that has consumed the consciousness of millions of people, and caused them to look at their country through the lens of a fun-house mirror: exaggerating all that is wrong and minimizing all that is right.
And this is what disturbs me: the fact that people today, despite living with more safety and wealth and access to information than anyone in human history, feel as though the world is going crazy and something drastic must be changed.