The New Zealand Terror Attack Shows Our Ethics Lagging Way Behind Our Technology
What leadership looks like. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern providing comfort when visiting Kilbirnie Mosque in Wellington, Sunday, March 17, 2019. (TVNZ via AP)
By Todd Essig
We are failing. Collectively. Some more than others. When white nationalist terrorism struck New Zealand, after similar strikes in Norway, Pittsburgh and Charleston, it showed how we are failing to meet a central challenge posed by our technologically hyper-connected world. Namely, the cultural consequences of rapidly advancing technology require an equally accelerated and psychologically-informed life-long ethical education. The more things change, well, the more things have to change. We all have to do better.
Hate speech takes root and sprouts violence in the fertile ground of, as Christian Picciolini describes in White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement–and How I Got Out, someone searching for identity, community, and purpose. Simply put, the developed world is failing to provide good-enough experiences of “identity, community, and purpose” suitable for 21st-century techno-culture.
The old ways for learning how to be a good, decent person no longer work, or don’t work well enough for enough people. Of course it’s an incredibly complex issue. But one piece is that people are now paradoxically isolated at their screens at the same time they are globally connected everywhere with anyone they choose. This paradox creates a feeling of community but without the responsibilities of community. The complexity and consequence of being fully with another person is diminished. Opportunities for empathy shrink to a vanishing point. But empathy creates the friction we need to slow and maybe even stop hate. So hate grows. When you combine the resulting online echo chambers of hate with globalization, increasing numbers of climate refugees, and the mind’s tendency to divide the world into “us” and “them” you end up with a violently toxic brew.
Part of the psychology involved here is the connection between these changes and anxiety. There’s no getting around the fact that change brings anxiety, as well as opportunity. It’s just that sometimes there’s too much anxiety, too much fear. For some the anxiety then blinds them to the opportunities that also come with change and difference. And anxiety dominates when someone can’t find identity, community, and purpose. So, when change happens, as it does now constantly, too many feel they have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Dominated by anxiety and fear, people will do whatever they can, no matter how destructive, to quell the anxiety, even finding identity, community, and purpose by becoming a white nationalist terrorist. That’s a tragic lesson from Norway, Charleston, Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and now the horror of the Christchuch massacre. It’s the rage of white men trying to squash change with violence.
You see it in the New Zealand terrorist’s manifesto and in an Australian Senator’s hateful victim-blaming response. You see it in the 22 July attacks in Norway. It was present in the terrorist’s attack on bible-studying black Christians in Charleston. The white nationalist terrorist there reportedly said when challenged during the attack “you’ve raped our women and you are taking over the country. I have to do what I have to do.” You see it in Christopher Paul Hasson, the recently arrested U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant, who called for “focused violence” to “establish a white homeland.” It was present in the Pittsburgh synagogue attack when a terrorist attacked during a Sabbath service because, as he wrote online, a Jewish organization supporting immigration “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in,”
Expressions of white rage in the face of change exists on a continuum from violence all the way to the purely unintentional. In the middle is coded speech, perhaps done intentionally but with plausible deniability of any connection to violence. President Trump hit that mid-point with characteristic fluency during the veto ceremony of the Congressional resolution denying his southern border emergency declaration. He said “People hate the word invasion, but that’s what it is. It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people. We have no idea who they are.” Later, after using the violent white nationalist language of an “invasion,” comes the denial when responding if the thought white nationalism was threat, “I don’t, really.” I’ve written before, both here and in an academic paper, about Trump’s masterful deployment of the psychology of hate. I’ve documented how Trump’s use of nationalist rhetoric helped fuel the Pittsburgh massacre. Now, despite his denials, we see the New Zealand terrorist praising President Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.”
Something is very wrong. Part of it is that emerging techno-culture fuels expressions of white nationalist terrorism by generating accelerating spirals of anxiety about change while simultaneously amplifying those expressions through reverberating online silos of hate. Of course the platforms need to do more to block these expressions. But so do we as individuals. We need to develop and implement a countervailing dynamic ethics of identity, community, and purpose suitable for thriving in our technologically-enhanced, globalized world. For example, Sherry Turkle has tried to get us to “reclaim conversation.” And Douglas Rushkoff exhorts us to join “team human.” But they remain cutting-edge voices not yet mainstream.
The mainstream ethical message we need has a really simple starting point, something that is really not all that complicated. Whether online or off, whether posting or viewing (or refusing to view and reporting instead) it is really not OK to hate people for being who they are. We need to realize that difference does not have to dehumanize nor simply be tolerated. Difference must be celebrated. Too much attention about technology is directed towards “how to use” or “how to make a profit” questions. Not enough attention is being spent developing and implementing an ethics of use. We need to start paying attention to the human consequences of the new world we create every time we tweet, pick up a reddit thread, snap, post a pic on Instagram, view or post something on YouTube, or whatever.
So, as a start, ask yourself: am I celebrating difference or dehumanizing someone else? Asking the question before you act matters. Violence needs to be stopped well before the seeds are planted. The words of Maya Angelou ring true: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” And when people of all sorts (black Christians, Jews, and Muslims) are being gunned down by white nationalist terrorists, we all have to do better to help solve the problem.