In a 1933 essay lamenting the rise of Nazism in Germany, Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Which is of course a dynamic that’s still at play in the modern world; the Dunning-Kruger effect is a thing, and one need only to look at American presidents to see that there’s little relationship between one’s intelligence and how far they can rise if they get it in their heads that they ought to be in charge of things.
But I think a much bigger factor in the problems our world faces is not so much about intelligence as empathy.
I was very nervous to share my multimedia piece “The Wizard” for Julian Assange’s 50th birthday, because I didn’t know how it would be received. I’d worked so hard on it and I had to access some deep tender bits of myself to bring it into existence, and I wasn’t sure how I’d handle it if people online decided to shit all over it because I simply did not have any armor over the inner parts that had created it. I knew if it attracted a lot of scorn and derision after I put it out in the world it was going to hurt a lot, because I’m a sensitive person and this was a sensitive piece for me.
I thankfully didn’t have to deal with any of that because it got an overwhelmingly positive reception, but it got me thinking a lot about how messed up our world is because people who let themselves be vulnerable so often choose to be silent, while people with no empathy or connection to others can speak freely.
Have you ever noticed how the major influencers on social media are able to simply ignore all the mountains of negative feedback they receive online and just go on with their days unbothered, but for you it’s hard to ignore even one niggling comment? Have you ever wondered how they do that?
I know I have. My biggest challenge in the few years I’ve been at this writing gig has not been the writing itself or coming up with new ideas or keeping it fresh and interesting, but dealing with the massive influx of attention it’s brought to me and my life. All of a sudden I’ve got all these voices in my world yelling at me for saying something they disagree with, or saying I’m a propagandist working for a foreign government, or demanding that I write about about their pet issue all the time or else it means I’m a sellout, or insisting that I’m a closet Nazi because of some unskillful comments I made after I first started writing, and a nearly infinite list of other gripes which I have no real way of dealing with, all because I started typing my thoughts out on the internet in 2016.
It’s been a real challenge trying to figure this all out. I see other influential voices simply not engaging much with the crowd, which I’ve tried but it feels a bit dishonest and elitist, like you’re dismissing people because they’re not as important as you are. It doesn’t quite sit right to act like other people’s opinions don’t matter as much as mine just because my voice wound up having more influence than theirs due to some strange twists of fate that I’ve never understood and over which I’ve never had any control.
I say this not to complain; my job is awesome and most people have it harder than I do. I say it because I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced this, and I’m sure the pressure is enough to silence many of those who do. I’ve got many years of intensive inner work under my belt, so if it’s hard for me I’m sure those who haven’t had the luxury of time to do much deep sea inner rabbit-holing are pressed much harder than I.
But you know who would have no problem simply dismissing the perspectives of others like they don’t matter? Narcissists and sociopaths. Those who don’t care about other people, those who view themselves as the center of the universe, or those who think they’re superior to other people.
On Psychopathy And Power
"Throughout history our main problems have been caused by the way we keep designing systems which elevate psychopaths to positions of leadership, who then go on to make psychopathic decisions."https://t.co/FvhttfAw66
— Caitlin Johnstone ⏳ (@caitoz) October 15, 2019
You can see right away how this creates an imbalance. If those who don’t care about human connection are completely unintimidated by the attention of the crowd while those who care deeply about people are cowed by the spotlight, you naturally wind up with narcissists and sociopaths occupying the positions of influence in our society. Which says a lot about why things are as fucked as they are.
Combine this with the fact that the most influential voices in this model are those who have benefitted from the status quo, and the fact that wealth kills empathy, and the fact that money uplifts those who are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead no matter who they have to step on, and it’s no wonder that we find ourselves ruled by sociopaths who manipulate public thought to their advantage.
Meanwhile the true artists and visionaries, those with the medicine for what ails us, are bullied into silence by people masturbating their inner wounds onto strangers on the internet.
I don’t see any easy solutions to this imbalance. We certainly don’t want to become heartless unfeeling creatures who dismiss the opinions of the crowd like they’re unimportant insects, but also we do need to find a way to continue speaking without having our light dimmed by those who are irresponsible with their inner misery. Near as I can tell, our best option is to become so deeply awake that we can continue to make art and speak out against the powerful even amid the vitriol and vituperation which comes the way of anyone who’s brave enough to shine bright. To become so conscious of our inner dynamics that abuse from strangers doesn’t silence us.
Here are some of my tools that I fall back on when people are mean.
(1) Take a minute. It’s not going to matter if I ever respond to a hurtful comment, let alone respond straight away. I can go have a glass of water, brush my teeth, hang the washing out, go for a walk, whatever, and it won’t actually matter. I have all the time in the world to respond, if I even choose to. And I don’t ever have to. I have a little saying I made up: “I am under no obligation to show up for a punishment I don’t deserve.” It’s surprising how many people think I do need to show up, though. But they are wrong.
(2) Zoom out a bit. Is it hurting anything real? I always remind myself that I’m not here to defend my little Caitlin ego. I’m trying to do this in the highest interest of everyone. I only really need to defend my reputation in as much as I need to keep my voice. If I am in danger of being silenced or having the influence of my voice marginalized by smears, then yes, I should defend myself, but if it’s just someone being impotently mean then I save my energy and shake it off. Which reminds me…
(3) Literally shake it off. I personally have found a lot of healing in shaking things off quite literally, as well as other kinaesthetic movements. If I feel like crying, I will have a big wail. I often tap around my body with my fingertips while yawning, coughing, burping, or dry retching to get things moving. I go with my physical impulses, like you do in improv theater or dance.
Hugging someone, talking it through, writing out what I’d really like to say, making art for myself out of the feelings it inspired, are all ways that I go towards the discomfort rather than slamming the door on it and vowing never to do anything ever again. The only way out is through in my experience. Pretending I’m fine just gets me stuck and I can’t create. If you have any other tools or strategies, please share them in the comments below. This is one area where we can all help each other.
And maybe, in the meantime, we can all try and be kind to those who create as well. Collective awakening is a team sport, and there’s only one side. It’s in all of our interest to elevate the higher aspects of ourselves and see the beauty in each other’s creations and give each other the confidence we need to fight another day.
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