Potential mental-health concerns in a poorly understood democracy?

As you can see from the question mark in the title, I’m considering this not so much something I know, but rather a topic about which I would like to collect information and feedback on.

A lot of people at the moment seem to be quite upset with their experience of the “media landscape”, which includes newspapers, traditional broadcast media on TV or radio, internet publications (e.g. Huffington Post, Medium, Breitbart, podcasts, etc.), as well as individuals “speaking through” platforms, like wikipedia, YouTube, but also Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. These are sources of information about parts of reality that people don’t have direct access to. And people can select from these, yet the content is more or less a mere “stream of information”, in which the reverse channel is of questionable quality–who knows whether what someone contributes back has any real effect? Other than grabbing more attention, serving the advertising industry…

What does that have to do with democracy? And with mental health?

For me, one of the reasons that people are quite dissatisfied with the media landscape is that it seems less and less possible to “make sense” of the divergent “opinions” and “perspectives” being broadcast. Instead of people having an experience of conversation or communication, it more feels like “being talked at”–and often with relatively poorly concealed motivation to “influence” and “incentivize” opinions in the readers, listeners, and viewers. In other words, I have a strong hunch that people feel that what is being presented to them (across the landscape, not necessarily in their medium of choice) is not so much a coherent image as it is a cacophony of voices, each becoming shriller and more demanding by the day, in an attempt to denounce the other voices as either “lying” or as “dangerous” or “unstable”, or some other label, suggesting one need not listen to those other voices.

And that’s where democracy and mental-health come in–at least insofar as democracy is understood as “majority rule” (over a minority).

Let me take you on a brief detour… Imagine being given a computer game, and being told you get to play 10 rounds, and that it’s somewhat difficult to win. You start playing, and lose the first round, win the next, lose the third, and then win every remaining round. That feels like quite an accomplishment, doesn’t it? Now, imagine that the person who gave you the game told you that during the first three rounds the computer “learned” from your behavior, and then, starting in round four, your actual choices in the game have little to do with your success and that you aren’t really in control. If you can, for a moment at least, assume and try to “believe” this, try to sense how that “feels” inside. My own experience is that it feels like I’m powerless, not in charge over the outcomes in my life.

And that, in a nutshell, is what I believe a democracy (if poorly understood as majority rule over a minority) comes down to: the experience that a lot of voices don’t matter. Even worse, imagine that starting in round 4 you lose every round, and you are informed the computer learned from your behavior, and then became better at “controlling you”.

That’s where the mental-health problems set in. It’s not only unfair, but also deeply humiliating. And I really feel more and more convinced that the situation we’re facing in the US right now, with a Trump Presidency which a “majority of people” (by pure head-count) didn’t seem to want, and where the same majority of people now seems to push for changes that would make the minority (the ones who did vote for Trump!) even more powerless than they already feel they have been for the past decades, mainly through calls for reforming if not abolishing the Electoral College, making the nation even more “democratic”. People reject the idea that they “need to be controlled by elites”.

And what do you think the outcome will be, if we in essence say that, yes, we don’t need to listen to the people who are angry at the establishment for not listening in the first place? I really shudder to think what might happen then…

As an outlook, I would like to point out that democracy could also be understood as a process of common sense making, in which every voice is heard. And my weird intuition is that, among other instruments, the Senate Filibuster exists precisely for that reason: that in a situation in which there is only a “numeric” but far from “definitive” majority, someone can actually stand up and say, “no, you haven’t really listened to the arguments on my side to the point where I’m satisfied, so I ask that you to listen a bit more, until I feel that you understand why what you’re proposing is a pretty bad idea from my perspective!” In the case of the filibuster it is quite unfortunate that it has become a farce, since what the person is saying often doesn’t have any relevance for the matter in hand. But to some extent I believe that’s mostly because at the moment we no longer listen to the other side–at all.

So if we want to have a democracy that is a process of sense-making then, yes, I do believe we need to start listening more, and listening better, and deeper. Why is it that so many people seem to be angry, and afraid, and in pain? Does having access to an advertising-financed news cable TV channel and Facebook and Twitter really explain all that unease? All by itself? I find that rather difficult to believe, and strongly suspect that the main reason for the relatively strong “negative mood” (and expressions of frustration) in the general population have more to do with their sense that they “don’t matter”, and they experience a lack of autonomy and dignity and respect, and that their life has too little meaning. And that’s true whether you are in the “majority” as well as in the “minority”, because what would be needed is an experience of making sense together, with everyone involved, not just half the country.

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