Knocking people down is easy. Knocking people down to make yourself look good is really easy, and a low effort ego-boost if you aren’t careful. So, please hear me as tongue in cheek as I mention how those other people are doing it wrong, blogging their complaints about the greed and selfishness of others while I have the moral high ground over here talking about the importance of bigging people up.
Anger and frustration are entirely natural emotional responses. There’s certainly plenty out there to get angry with, and nothing wrong with feeling it. No emotion is wrong. But, we then get a lot of choices around what we do in response to any given emotion. Knocking someone else down can feel like power. It can feel like taking a significant, meaningful action. However, politics in recent years has demonstrated that often when you try to knock people down, they’re more likely to dig in with their position. Feeling humiliated and got-at doesn’t tend to bring out the best in people.
There are a lot of stories out there in which evil characters do evil things because they are evil. It’s one of the most unhelpful stories we habitually tell each other. People do things for reasons, and at the time they tend to think their reasons are good ones, or justified, or necessary. When people seem to be acting badly, it’s worth stepping back and asking what might be underpinning that. Often the roots can be found in fear – we live in insecure societies with most people in debt and a paycheck or two from utter disaster. Individual coping mechanisms for this can often add to the problems as well as distracting from them. Scared people seldom make good choices.
As social creatures, humans are motivated by the approval of others. When this goes wrong, it can drive a person deeper into the embrace of a toxic relationship, or for that matter, a toxic community. If everyone else is calling you stupid, you’re going to cling that bit harder to the people who tell you that you’re very clever. Cults and conspiracy theories alike thrive on this.
Knocking people down doesn’t reliably persuade them that you are right. But it does fuel the kind of anxiety that pushes people towards the things that offer them apparent uplift. A lot of populist politics depend on this. It doesn’t help that money, and the display of money through rampant consumerism is one of the few routes most people are offered towards being socially respected. It’s a precarious path, and it doesn’t get the majority where they want to be so it feeds resentment and dissatisfaction as well.
If we want to make real change – socially or environmentally – we have to persuade people to engage. People who feel belittled by a minority aren’t going to step away from a culture that promises to reward them for being selfish. It is essential to lift and inspire people rather than just criticising them. We’re all flawed, we all have things we do badly and competitive virtue signalling isn’t reliably virtuous. When it comes to making change in the world, I feel strongly that kindness and compassion are the key virtues to cultivate. Even if you do that primarily to try and impress people with your performance, it still works. If everyone is trying to perform kindness, we can get some good things done.
Kindness and compassion do not require us to be uncritical, but presentation can make a lot of odds. It’s possible to dismantle ideas without attacking people, and I think it gets more done to offer people ways of feeling better about themselves.