O 2020, thou harsh and cruel year.
I won’t recap all the things that we’ve been trying to live through this year, those are matters for history books and YouTube videos. What we’ve all experienced is unlike anything the world has seen since the 1920s, an era that most of our current population has no memory of, and regards as little more than topics for … well, history books and YouTube videos.
But it’s been more than a pandemic, more than Black Lives Matter, more than political instability. In 2020, we came to realize the death of common civility.
Dial the clock back (for those of you old enough) to the late 1980s, when the public eye first confronted “political correctness”, a pejorative that arose for the conservative elements who were upset that the more liberal and left-leaning elements of our society pushed for things like equality, the end of racism, women’s rights, an end to the use of labels and names that were hurtful to minority groups, and the kind of justice that seems to only be talked about in dystopian fiction as a thing we’ve lost.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to dystopia. But not the world-ending kind, just the kind where half the population is beset by the other half. To be fair, it’s actually much worse: a majority of the world’s population is beset by a minority of privileged First World individuals and their like-minded supporters. Because, yes, we must acknowledge that the First World inflicts its influence anywhere it chooses, as it controls the majority of wealth and power, sets the general cultural tone for much of the planet, and directly manages most of the supply chains, financial networks, and energy supplies used by the rest of the planet.
We effectively have two groups that most of humanity falls into: the socially-minded and the personally-minded. The socially-minded see a utopia where race, sex, gender, religion, and language have no bearing or effect on your opportunity and freedom. Those who hold this belief are prepared and willing to sacrifice their own position to better the whole of humanity.
The other group is personally-minded: their utopia is liberty, the freedom to do as they choose without the influence of others. The personally-minded focus on their own needs, the needs of their families. Success is advancement, wealth, influence, and control over their own destiny. The effects of that success on others is unimportant, especially when it applies to those not in their social circles, including their ethnic and religious base. Supporting the community is only of importance when the support also benefits them.
These beliefs are not something many are willing to give up, even to the point of violence.
Since the beginning of the millennia, we have witnessed a change in attitude. The socially-minded idealism that many had thought on the rise started to give way to those who did not wish to relinquish privilege or position, those who encouraged others to believe that the very governments who could bring about a socially-minded utopia were dishonest and interested only in taking away the very liberties that others had come to enjoy.
And you know what? They were right. The only way to move forward as a society is to deliberately take things away from the privileged (such as money in the form of taxation) and impose a set of rules that insured fairness among individuals (such as the affirmative action laws in the United States). As much as we might like to think that we, as an advanced species upon this planet, are beyond such things as greed and pride, the truth is that we’re little more than intelligent beasts, ruled by the same pointed passions that we see in National Geographic documentaries.
You can only take away so much before the resistance starts. It happens to the poor, it happens to the privileged. We’ve seen this time and again throughout human history, readily found in books and videos. There is always a point at which one group rallies against the other, to claw back what is believed to be right. We are in such a rally right now.
The dichotomy is most visible in North America and the United Kingdom. In both cases, we have witnessed the division of the population, centred on what is being taken away: money and freedoms. The statements of what was fact and what was falsehood is largely irrelevant, because what is fact to one group is falsehood to another — we choose to see truths from our certain point of view, even if another group thinks we’re utterly out to lunch.
In the United Kingdom, we saw what became Brexit: the distrust of the European Union, who was taking all of the United Kingdom’s money and forcing the United Kingdom to bow to the European Union’s rules. This rubbed right into the centuries-old distrust of continental Europe, causing much outcry from all over Britain, triggering the 2016 referendum. While the socially-minded reeled at the idea of giving up access to the EU and the opportunities those afforded, the personally-minded were quite keen to tell the rest of Europe to sod off. Regardless of the outcome of either the election or the years of political turmoil that followed, the sentiment that caused all this remains, and will continue to affect British and European politics for many years to come.
But Brexit pales in comparison to the greatest example our modern world has ever seen: Donald Trump.
The world (yes, the planet, because the United States has that level of influence and power) knew as we were dragged through the 2016 United States of America Presidential campaign that we were dealing with a monster. Most of the potential candidates that year (you might recall Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) had the socially-minded upset with their histories and some of their promises, but they were dim shadows in Trump’s blazing fire. A caricature of Corporate America with a loud mouth, Trump was the perfect prototype for the personally-minded. It didn’t matter how much proof of his misogyny and racism got surfaced, it didn’t matter that his business were seen as shams, that his facts were verifiably wrong, or that he had little interest in actual politics and just wanted to rule the America Corporation.
Unlike the Republican Presidents of the past, who argued for smaller government and lower taxes, Trump just … argued. He became the example for saying what you wanted, doing what you pleased, and damn everyone else. The press said bad things? Fake, not news, not worth my time. Mexicans are taking American jobs? We’ll build a wall to keep them out, and make Mexico pay for it, too! Pandemic, shmandemic, we’re fine. China is killing the American economy. “I have the right to do whatever I want as president.”
For the personally-minded, this isn’t just leadership, it’s an invitation to follow in his footsteps, without challenge or repercussion. As an enabler, this was a call to arms unlike any nightmare the socially-minded could have imagined. In the last four years, we’ve witnessed those in positions of privilege and power disregard human rights, ignore the very society they’re supposed to represent, murder without penalty, vastly increase their personal wealth and take away the taxes that affected their supporters, and arrange the political landscape to make it exceptionally difficult for anyone to undo their deeds. The powerful will stay powerful, the rich will stay rich, and the socially-minded are beside themselves.
When we talk about Trump winning a second term, it’s not out of the realm of possibility — it’s probable. We only need to witness the events of 2020 alone, notably the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19, and the protests against them, to truly see the the effect of Trump upon the North American ethos. Simply put: Trump has told us to forget the rules that the socially-minded tried to put into place. There is no more requirement to behave kindly to your neighbour, there is no more need to worry about a stranger. The American Dream — to have it all — is alive and well, and a perfect example of it sits in the White House.
The divide has been forming for years, with less and less bipartisanship, with less compromise and collaboration. Each and every day, we take one step further apart from the other side, because we cannot understand each other’s point of view. While I might sit here and suggest that I can see both sides, it doesn’t mean I understand them. I am socially-minded, myself; I have friends who are personally-minded, and while I have a general understanding of their intents, I cannot fathom why they would not care about the suffering of others. Similarly, I suspect, my personally-minded friends would struggle to understand why I’m so concerned about people I’ve never met or why I work for companies (instead of myself) to help others be better at what they do, even if they make more than me.
Our society is dividing rapidly. A few decades ago, when “political correctness” was little more than the snide pejorative, we had the equivalent of a bell curve, with our two camps in the middle, the more extreme members in small, disconnected numbers at the sides. This was due to our media: newspapers and TV stations were concerned about sales, so they played to the very prominent and plentiful middle ground. It was expensive to produce and broadcast TV, newspapers competed extensively for the same markets, effectively discouraging strong views outside of the odd letter to the editor or a late night paid commercial.
Then came cable. The barrier to entry for alternative programming dropped significantly, allowing more focused content. Alternative voices became more prominent, and the bell curve began to flatten. With the popularization of the internet, an infinite number of crevices formed where extremism festered, driving deep wedges into our civility. When social media strayed from the few to the millions, without any filter or control, we effectively gave shining neon signs and megaphones to everyone, and those with the most appealing messages got the most attention. The bell curve got shoved right to the floor, pushing our groups to the sides.
History tells us what happens when this gap gets too wide. The opposite sides of this wide valley become too extreme, and the violence increases, because we are intelligent beasts ruled by pointed passions. We tend to mark these events with the words “revolution”, “uprisal”, “rebellion”, and “war”.
I hope that I’m wrong, I hope that I’m reading the landscape poorly, that I’m reading into things I know so little of. But I fear for the future. For my children. Because I’m fairly sure I’m right.