Profound Anxiety and Fear: How The Rapid Pace of Change and News Information Worldwide Has Outstripped Humans’ Capacity to Process Them
By guest writer Patrice Johnson
“The U.S. needs more conflict, not less,” says journalist and author Amanda Ripley in an On Being interview with Krista Tippett. “We need turbulent city council meetings and clashes in guidance counselor offices,” she advises, because “living without conflict is like living without love…There is no shorter path to transformation.” But conflict falls into two buckets: good conflict versus diabolical high conflict.
Ripley, a trained conflict mediator, warns that Americans and others around the world are trapped, at a deep level, in a pattern of distress known as high conflict. The dark side of high conflict is that people lose their peripheral vision. High conflict collapses complexity of thought and the fullness of reality. “It sweeps everything into its vortex.” People in high conflict become stuck in perpetual cycles of blame, and “they make huge mistakes.”
In her brilliant essay titled “Complicating the Narratives,” Ripley describes herself as a recovering journalist. She confesses a professional existential crisis.
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We journalists can summon outrage in five words or less. We value the ancient power of storytelling, and we get that good stories require conflict, characters, and scenes. But in the present era of tribalism, it feels like we’ve reached our collective limitations … Again and again, we have escalated the conflict and snuffed the complexity out of the conversation.
Journalism has the power to prime people for curiosity and complexity, or it can induce high conflict. Ripley compares today’s politics to high-conflict divorces, in which nobody wins and children suffer the most.
A sense of moral superiority typically accompanies high conflict, so people in its throes are prone to taking on a better-than attitude. In categorizing others as inferior, they dehumanize others and can be quick to assign blame. Blame leads to increased polarization and humiliation. It sets the stage for violence.
When in high conflict, people often think they are acting reasonably when they are actually acting out of fear. None of our instinctive reactions to fear will produce positive resolutions, Ripley says. “Anything we do is probably the wrong thing. The pathway out takes practice.”
A global issue
High conflict is happening across the planet, Ripley reports. The rapid pace of change and news information worldwide has outstripped humans’ capacity to process them. This creates profound anxiety and fear.
Anxiety we instinctively notice; fear, not so much. We humans are unskilled at understanding our fears. Left undisclosed and unmanaged, the fear emotion tends to surface as anger.
Vulnerable to influence
People entrenched in high conflict are vulnerable to influence. Opportunists, according to Ripley, are “happy to tweak this anxiety.” She implicates the media for inciting conflict in order to attract viewers. By extension, she also implicates advertisers, politicians, and the government for seeking to attract their respective buyers, votes, and public support.
When more tempered efforts fail to achieve the desired results, unethical organizations or enemies—foreign and domestic—have been known to train provocateurs to embellish and incite mob violence.
What Ripley neglects to mention is that philosophers dating back to Ancient Greece have sounded the alarm regarding this dangerous propensity for people in high conflict to devolve into mob violence. Plato, a student of Socrates, wrote in 375 BC that “democracy” is prone to mob rule and to undue influence.
Plato’s The Republic, one of the world’s most influential works of philosophy and political theory – both intellectually and historically – examines ethical justice and the necessary role of representative government to protect society from mob rule (hence the title, The Republic).
In our nation, the concept of a republic was designed to ensure that cooler heads prevail. The Founding Fathers began with the creation of a federal republic of states in 1776. This coalition of states adopted a structure whereby We the People self-governed through our elected representatives.
The formation of this experiment in Republicanism culminated in 1787 with the adoption of the Constitution of the United States of America—a document that steadfastly bound our elected representatives to honor the supreme law of the land and to abide by a system of checks and balances that protect individual citizen rights.
How to transition from high conflict to good conflict?
“What Ripley has been gathering by way of answers to that question is an extraordinary gift to us all,” writes the interviewer Krista Tippett.
Our nation, Ripley explains, is like a couple in a relationship, and we have kids together. “There’s no winning this marriage,” she says. Either we stay together, or we don’t. To stay together, we need to work on restoring trust, and the pathway out of high conflict begins with listening for what is most important to the opposing person.
To truly listen, we must learn how to have civil conversations that start with acknowledging what we think we hear from the other person. Rather than rushing to accuse or cast blame, a person in good conflict will play back the other person’s words in the most elegant language they can muster. “So, if I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying (fill in the blank with care). Am I right in understanding what you said?”
“Don’t ever give up on anyone,” she urges. Rather than giving in to anger that arises from vague fears and to avoid falling prey to mob rule, we must work to think deeply and avoid making mistakes.
In that sense, then, Ripley seems to say we should never give up on ourselves.
She aptly quotes playwright and philosopher George Bernard Shaw. “The only mistake in communication is thinking it happened.”
Ripley’s essay “Complicating the Narratives” is available on the Solutions Journalism blog. She’s written several acclaimed books, including High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. Find the transcript for this podcast at onbeing.org.
Listen: On Being interview with Krista Tippett.