countering populism

I would say that populism is the first refuge of a scoundrel and a literate, engaged, and networked citizenry gives no such refuge. But education alone is not the answer to the constant outrage we are witnessing as many societies polarize on political lines. Even highly educated people can be bigots, racists, and misogynists. Society’s answer to populism is not a return to the old ways, nor an ironic post-modern shrug, but rather a new meta-modernity — multi-layered, relational, and global.

Slovakia’s president, Zuzana Caputova elected in March 2019, suggests a way out of the populist quagmire. The answer is to be calm, rational, and to embrace others, much like a universal mother.

“People are afraid of the unknown, of changes,” she said. “This fear is used by populists to come with very simple, very clear solutions.” But Caputova also noticed opinion polls showing that the politics of fear had another effect: “People are tired of conflict.” She resolved to “avoid heating up the discussions,” to offer not just her views but also the moral reasoning behind them. In televised debates, while the other candidates bickered, she came off as calm and measured … In the debate between those who argue “fight back and mobilize your supporters” and those who argue “use slogans that unite,” Caputova’s experience argues for the latter. —WaPo 2019-10-15

Marshall & Eric McLuhan’s laws of media can help us understand the potential effects of a new technology. Every medium — such as digital networks — 1. extends a human property (as the car extends the foot), 2. obsolesces the previous medium by turning it into a luxury (as the automobile horses and carriages unaffordable for most ), 3. retrieves a much older medium that was obsolesced before (as the automobile brings back the shining armour of the chevalier), and 4. flips or reverses its properties into the opposite effect when pushed to its limits (as does the automobile, which in large numbers creates gridlock).

The third quadrant — retrieval — is most interesting because we can see what is coming back from our history, but in a new form. The tribal affiliations being retrieved particularly via social media are what Caputova had to counter in order to get elected. She addressed these tribes not by creating a new tribe, but by discounting the tribal perspective and focusing on the population’s common humanity instead. In this case, it worked. Understanding retrieval gives us a tool to counter the negative effects — or potential reversal — of new technologies.

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