Ireland, and the need to deal with the learned helplessness of echo chambers and filter bubbles…

I watch/listen to a lot of RTÉ. It’s a relic from the ’80s when I moved to the south coast of England, way outside the range of Radio Ulster, and found the NI pickings from the BBC in London very thin.

RTÉ Radio One on Long Wave was the thickest newsflow I could access at the time. Almost incidentally and by osmosis I also eavesdropped on some of the big developments in the south.

I recall Ian Paisley slamming the phone down on Gay Byrne after he’d asked him how he advised his southern congregations in the Free Presbyterian Church to vote in the ’86 Divorce referendum.

Despite the fact I can listen to any station in the world these days, the habit has stuck. Even back then, I sense that Byrne in particular was grappling with what Stephen Collins refers to as

…a false narrative which depicts this country as little better than a failed state when the reality is that it is one of the richest and fairest societies on the globe.

The thing I liked about Byrne is that he knew that there were many angles to this “complex” and was never afraid to open up and fight different fronts to try and tackle what Dermot Casey describes

…as a postcolonial country, sometimes I wonder if we have a certain learned helplessness in Ireland. [Emphasis added]

For me (my earliest experience of the south was on my family’s tiny farm in north Donegal), it’s baffling that the south’s successes seem not to have dented such an underlying lack of self confidence.

I do get the anger (my piece on the housing crisis is coming next week), but not the clouding doom that seems to accompany every TV and radio interview of government or opposition spokespeople.

As Collins notes…

By any objective analysis Ireland has done remarkably well since it emerged as an independent state. Despite its birth being accompanied by a vicious civil war, the country remained a democracy through its early decades when most of Europe succumbed to fascism or communism.

Over the past half century our politicians, public servants and State agencies have built on that stability to create the conditions for an astonishing level of economic growth and social progress. The population has risen by over two million since the early 1960s, we live far longer, have never been healthier or better educated and more of us are at work than ever before.

Most of these benefits are calculated by averages, and as the political economist Mark Blyth regularly points out, if a billionaire walks into a bar of blue collar workers, on average they’re all millionaires.

Nor does it account for stressors like when firms on wafer thin margins refuse to increase wages at the base. The south is wealthy in Dublin and the SE, but overall the poor are far poorer than in NI.

Add to that the effects of the BUMMER model of big social media companies that endlessly feed an all encompassing Bullish!t chorus of “Tragedy”, as per the one CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan highlights here…

As C Thi Nguyễn notes in the intro to his paper on The Seductions of Clarity (a must read for anyone trying to seriously figure out how the post truth/fake nuz era arose)…

The sense of clarity functions as a thought-terminating heuristic. In that case, our use of clarity creates significant cognitive vulnerability, which hostile forces can try to exploit.

If an epistemic manipulator can imbue a belief system with an exaggerated sense of clarity, then they can induce us to terminate our inquiries too early — before we spot the flaws in the system.

However as Casey argues in his essay:

The future belongs to those who can envisage, communicate it and will it into being. For better and for worse. At its worst it’s the former US president banned from Twitter who lived rent free in too many of our heads for years. At its best it’s an emancipatory process where we co-create a better future.

And that better future requires…

…True Leadership is an act of will and an act of courage. It is taking a knee. It is Fridays for the Future. It is building a school or a credit union.  It is starting a company or a conference or writing a novel, crafting a bowl or painting.

It is an emancipatory act of the human spirit, and no matter how small, it is quietly ambitious for the creation of a better future. The arc of history bends nowhere without people deciding to bend it. [Emphasis added]

To return to Collins’ column, he cites a fascinating book called In Fact: An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100, which (correctly, I think) identifies a key source of Ireland’s long term economic success:

Relatively consistent centrist governments, with few swings to the hard left or hard right, ensured a continuity of policy and investment programmes over a sufficiently long time to ensure their success.

As per Shakespeare, “what’s past is prologue”. History was never inevitable in the moment. It was willed into life by individuals like Fr Tom Finlay and Sir Horace Plunkett who’s legacies still endure.

Here’s Collins’ finish:

One example of the way things have changed for the better in recent decades has been a dramatic reduction in the number of road deaths to less than 150 a year.

As recently as the early 1970s, when there was a tiny fraction of the current number of cars on the road, the annual death toll peaked at 640. Yet 66 per cent of people in a recent survey thought that driving behaviour on our roads was deteriorating.

It seems that if people are constantly told that things are getting worse they will believe it even if their own experience tells them the opposite.

Opposition politicians and media commentators who tag the word “crisis” on to every problem, great and small, have managed to persuade far too many people to accept a warped version of reality.

This narrative of failure has become so all pervasive that it represents a real threat to Ireland’s future.

Now that can shift if, as most younger people do, you look at matters through the prism of climate change. A fix to housing is only fix when the houses are ready and done.

And then there’s the wider (and far more profound) challenge to the way the things get done, and the lurking dangers in the lithe fluidity of the current moment. Casey again:

We are entering the liminal age as existing institutions and structures fray and new and changed and reshaped ones have yet to solidify. It has seeped into our politics, the craving for stability in a world of flux.

This instability, created initially by neoliberalism,  creates space for authoritarian leaders who promise a stability they can’t deliver. [Emphasis added]

However inept/lost our institutions are, we still need them. If only to express our collected human agency. They need replenished with purpose, not the distrust of the echo chamber and filter bubble.

And, as Dermot says, in relation to the huge focus we need to give to climate change, we will absolutely have to find new ways to transition towards greater, not lesser, social agency…

The facts of the world may be dark and yet we have to take action in the world. The only sin is to give in to despair. [Emphasis added]

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