There is something very disturbing about the modern habit of making instant judgements about everything, simple or complex. This has been blamed on the 24-hour news cycle which is said to force quicker and quicker stories out for fear that a particular news outlet is going to look slow. It has also been blamed on the rise of social media which has encouraged us all to believe that our voice has a right to be heard and that our opinions are as valid as anyone’s. It has also been blamed on short, modern attention spans.
Whatever the cause, the net effect of all this is quite seriously bad, in my view. Of course it is a good thing that we are not all meekly waiting to be told what to think by those in power, elected or otherwise. In the past this mental attitude of deference has lead to some terrible iniquities, the details of which come out on a regular basis (think sex scandals involving children’s homes or Churches of one denomination or another, or the horror stories coming out thanks to the #MeToo campaign, even now touching China, it seems.
But there is a downside, too. Take yesterday’s news that there was a terrorist attack on the House of Parliament. We don’t know much about Salih Khater, the driver of the car which crossed lanes in front of Parliament and injured three cyclists and pedestrians before crashing into the barriers. Yesterday he was a terrorist. Today, the police say they haven’t found anything to link him to terrorism and it seems his motives (or reasons, as it could be he or the car malfunctioned for all we know) are a mystery as yet.
So yesterday it was a daring terror attack, today we are not quite sure, tomorrow or probably sometime later we will find out the truth.
What effect does this have, though? It feeds the impression that we are living in dangerous times, that we are under attack from people who would harm us. And the initial conclusions are, I suspect, seldom reset.
In this sound-bite and tweet-driven world there is little room for complexity or subtlety. So far we have reaped the benefits of transparency and ease of publication but at the cost of polarisation and populism. Consider the reaction to the dreadful collapse of the motorway bridge in Genoa which is being blamed by Italy’s senior politicians on privatisation, corruption and the EU before any investigation has even begun. How could you possibly draw a conclusion like that so quickly? The answer is you can’t, but that doesn’t really work in a rapid-fire world.
We have yet to work out how to restore some balance and reason in this new environment. But we really should be trying harder.