😨 Anders Bolling: External threats are the bane of modern man

😨 Anders Bolling: External threats are the bane of modern man

Terrorist crisis - refugee crisis - financial crisis - euro crisis - metoo crisis - pandemic crisis - Ukraine crisis - energy crisis. Should any gaps arise, the ever-luring climate crisis pops up.

Anders Bolling
Anders Bolling

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Surely it feels as if the crises are coming more and more often. In the past, there were at least gaps of a few years between the crisis periods, but now it is as if they lie side by side, or even change hands: Terror crisis - refugee crisis - financial crisis - euro crisis - metoo crisis - pandemic crisis - Ukraine crisis - energy crisis. Should any gaps arise, the ever-luring climate crisis pops up.

This is very interesting. I am not going to delve into why the crises seem to be coming more often, but that it is connected with an increasingly integrated and communication-dense world is probably beyond all doubt. Nor will I go into the extent to which some crises are mental creations and might not have been described as crises fifty years ago.

I can only state that this is how it looks in the collective consciousness.

Threats come and go

Within the context of each individual crisis (with the exception of the persistent climate issue), it is impossible to sustain the sense of threat for very long. Pretty soon it becomes clear that this was not the end of the world. One has to make an effort to remember the last three or four crises in the correct order.

But the result of the serial crisis is persistent collective anxiety that hardly ever subsides.

It is hardly controversial to say that this concern favors the political game. In that context, worry is sometimes called dissatisfaction, but they are similar in a way. How could political leaders attract voters who live in harmony and are satisfied with their existence?

Well, one should not pick too much on those in power, because it is a symbiosis: unless most people willingly adopt a described image of threat, many political decisions will be difficult to make (and those in power are also human). Various restrictions are the clearest example. In a democracy, those in power have the power the citizens are willing to give them.

Gather around external dangers

This symbiosis is fueled by the fact that we all suffer from an unfortunate psychological flaw: the inability to rest within ourselves. We seem to be strongly conditioned to rally around external dangers. What this is due to is debatable, but I and others have pointed to an ancient remnant in what is commonly called the reptilian brain: a finely honed ability to scout for danger. This was apparently a survival advantage in historical environments such as the Stone Age.

Today, our lives are safer than ever, but the built-in function of constantly searching for what's wrong is still lurking in there. This means that it doesn't really matter how much better we get it, because the world will never be perfect, and it's child's play to find things that should be better. It is about a relative reality experience, not an absolute one.

I call it the "misery threshold": the better off we get, the lower the threshold for us to worry. I'm not saying that there aren't problems that in absolute terms are just as big today as they were a hundred years ago, but for anyone who studies trends and averages, there's no doubt that today's world is the best yet. But who has the time or inclination to sit down and study trends and averages?

We are therefore superb at finding faults. The opposite quality, finding what is right, and rejoicing in it, we are abysmal on the other hand. Maybe there was no survival advantage?

"How bad can it get?"

The news feed is a concentration of this human tendency. How many times have you heard a reporter ask an expert "what's the best case scenario" instead of "how bad could it get?" An editor can be woken up in the middle of the night and immediately formulate a headline about some rapid deterioration, but it takes a lot of head-scratching to make something punchy and selling out of a slow improvement (it's itself a media dilemma that improvements rarely come suddenly).

But journalists are people, just like those in power. News journalism has emerged in a societal context. I don't think you can isolate the media as the culprit in the drama. We all act a bit like news journalists in some situations. As soon as things are working exactly as they should and no obvious problems are in sight, most of us get nervous. It can't be this good. There must be something wrong and deceiving somewhere.

How nice, finally a threat

Author and filmmaker Lasse Berg has recounted the reactions when he lectured on the enormous improvements he had seen during his repeated trips to Asia. Towards the end, he used to add by saying that everything in the world is obviously not good, and that we have, for example, a climate threat to avert. Then it was as if a relief spread among the audience, according to Berg. How nice, finally a threat.

Lassa Berg. Wikimedia Commons.

Incidentally, Lasse Berg is one of those who have done the most to openly, curiously, and respectfully spread knowledge about the indigenous people in southern Africa, the continent from which homo sapiens apparently originate. When I read about the harmonious traditional existence of the San people, who are said to be the group whose lives are closest to what we had when we were all gatherers and hunters, I doubt whether the "reptilian brain theory" tells us the whole story. There must be other variables.

Just what this is, and where it originated, I know as little as anyone (though I may have theories), and in any case, that is a topic for an entirely different text. But I believe that one reason why modern man's ego regularly goes into overdrive and starts frantically looking for external faults and threats is a fear of going inward. When everything calms down, when life just seems... well, good, we suddenly have time to devote ourselves to the big questions. Who am I? Why am I here? We get the opportunity to examine how much of our identity is stuck on and whether there might be something else deep down.

That scares us more than any external enemy ever could. The worldly, which we have learned to focus on throughout our lives, feels safer than the intangible.