While the world’s news focus hangs on Donald Trump and Brexit, locally yet another racist diatribe has been caught on camera. The social-media villagers have gathered with pitchforks and the torches. Oh, and the state broadcaster held a séance and raised the ghost of Louis le Grange while our capital city burned. It’s like Pravda, but with better executive remuneration
A look at the language behind all these of events says something about the state of the media and how it’s consumed. File such preoccupations under #MiddleClassProblems if you like, but bear with me. The problem with technology and information is that it’s like the sun in Pink Floyd’s “Time” - always ahead of us, racing up behind us as we flail along. If 90% of the information in the world was created in the last 12 months, we’ve long ago crossed the point where our capacity to create information bisected our capacity to consume it.
Some years ago I reviewed a useful little book titled My Brain Hurts, which detailed the ways that technology is changing how our minds work. That seems to now be happening in more ways than even the authors might have envisaged, especially as social media insists that we instantly hate or love everything.
Suzanne Moore writes in The Guardian that we now seem to be equally offended by everything. The plight of refugees, or politicians’ complicity in xenophobia appears to garner as much outrage as the fact that the new Top Gear isn’t as good as the old one, or, to quote the clickbait, the news that, “Millionaires want this video banned!” or “Fired Employee Made $1,67 Million And Bought the Business a Year After He Was Fired.” (Wait, I’m confused: was he fired once or twice? It’s you who’s fired, O Headline Writer, fired.)
Offence can be good for business, of course. The canny chaps at Top Gear know that nothing ratings climb when you inadvertently (yeah, right) offend someone, followed by a puzzled, what’s-all-the-fuss-about apology.
I’m no psychologist, but I wonder if there’s a link between overload of distraction and the offence that becomes our go-to, reflexive emotional ground-state and a fertile place for mob mentality. Maybe we need to start with using more words: in The New York Times, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett writes that the more precisely we’re able to describe our feelings, the better we can deal with them.
Feldman Barrett says that those of us with “finely-tuned feelings” have greater “emotional granularity” and that improves how we see ourselves in the world and how we deal with what happens to us in that world. In effect, our brains build our emotional states around how we can describe how we feel.
She says the brain, outside of your conscious awareness, “constructs” your emotional states, taking cues from your vocabulary of emotional concepts. “This is why emotional granularity can have such influence on your well-being and health,” she says. “It gives your brain more precise tools for handling the myriad challenges that life throws at you.”
The “high granularity” types might, when heartbroken, listen to Leonard Cohen non-stop for a week and describe their pain in late-night phone-calls with long-suffering friends. As a result, they’re better able to process the grief than those who simply say, “I’m gutted”. She adds that this may be why foreign words that describe moods very precisely are so potent, like “Fremdschämen” (German) and “Myötähäpeä” (Finnish), being embarrassed on someone else’s behalf, or the Swedish “Hygge”, cuddling up to stave off the winter dark.
That’s nearly as useful as The Meaning of Liff, the alternative dictionary by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, which listed objects and feelings for which there isn’t a word, but should be. These included Baughurst (n.): that kind of large, fierce, ugly woman who owns a small, fierce, ugly dog, Climpy (adj.): allowing yourself to be persuaded to do something and pretending to be reluctant, Dalmilling (ptcl. vb.): continually making small talk to someone who is trying to read a book, and Kettleness (adj.): the quality of not being able to pee while being watched.
Granted, “pissed off” is a handy catch-all reaction to an array of irritants, from the droning colleague who holds international conference-calls at his desk in an open-plan office, to the banal toxicity of Ntokoza Qwabe, Mabel Jansen and Penny Sparrow.
But it’s now possible that Trump – as porcine, odious and Hermann Goering-esque a churl you might encounter going all Kristallnacht on minorities—might one day have access to nuclear weapons. Boris Johnson might too. If North Korea’s Kim Jong-un somehow gets nukes too, the world will be a very scary place, and not just for dismayed hairdressers. Buffoons with bombs suddenly seem nearer than the much-discussed Singularity of technological advances that allow us to transcend our biological limitations. So the language of articulate outrage is more important than ever.