Wednesday 23 October 2019

Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World - author addresses the age of unreason

A new book explores the theory that too many of us opt for knee-jerk reaction over proper consideration. Ian O'Doherty meets its author

Perfect storm: people no longer think they can trust or believe the people who represent them
Perfect storm: people no longer think they can trust or believe the people who represent them

It was a remarkable story, a parable for our febrile times and what was even more remarkable was how quickly it was forgotten.

In the opening salvo of William Davies' engrossing, perplexing, occasionally infuriating but consistently thought-provoking Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World, the author recounts a bizarre incident in London last November.

In a city justifiably twitchy at the prospect of yet another terrorist attack, word spread that another terrorist attack was taking place.

The police rushed to the scene amidst reports that gunfire had been heard. The phrase "terror-related" was bandied about. Oxford Circus tube station was evacuated. Images of large, panicked crowds running in the opposite direction of heavily armed cops went viral and then, just to make matters worse, the singer Olly Murs, who was in a nearby department store at the time, tweeted to his eight million followers the rather incendiary words: "Fuck, everyone get out of Selfridge's now, gun shots!"

As that tweet spread, causing a rush of shoppers trying to evacuate the building, they were greeted by others who were trying to gain access, and even greater chaos ensued.

It was a very modern urban legend in every way imaginable - a rumour quickly mutated into a fact which evolved into a panic and nine people required hospital treatment for injuries sustained in the pandemonium.

Of course, matters weren't helped by the likes of the loathsome Tommy Robinson announcing on his own social media feed that "this looks like another jihadist attack", yet by close of business that day, the tube stations were reopened, the armed anti-terror units were stood down, the shops reopened and presumably Robinson returned to whateverhe was doing before the mass confusion and chaos had taken over. It's certainly a fascinating start to Nervous States, but Davies, a sociologist and political economist at Goldsmiths, University of London, points out that it's a far from isolated incident - mass panic for unknown reasons has always been around and, indeed, a similar, terror-related fear swept through JFK Airport a year earlier.

Speaking to Review, Davies ponders the strange confluence of events that led to such chaotic and potentially life-threatening scenes and while there are many factors, he reckons the one overriding element was the need for speed - in this case immediate information.

"The statistical chances of you being killed in a terrorist attack are obviously incredibly small, but when people start running, of course you're going to pay attention - and in the absence of any other information, that's human nature."

The main thrust of Nervous States, however, is that too many people have simply given up large parts of their rational selves and now react to things, rather than considering them first.

It has also led to an almost complete breakdown in trust between people and the authority figures they used to look up to - or at least listen to. "Marie Le Pen refers to the media and establishment in general as 'le cast'," says Davies. "She talks about a small group of people in the media, and in politics and so on, who all know each other and who go for dinner together and things like that.

"A lot of it is simply incorrect, of course, but there is a point there. People have begun to turn their backs on the traditional structures because there is a genuine disconnect and they have lost all faith and trust in both the media and their politicians."

This is most commonly used as a stick with which to beat people who voted for Trump, and Davies is scathing about Trump and many of his voters. But he is also aware of where their appeal comes from - "people," he says, "can now believe what they want to believe and the evidence base for their beliefs shrinks. The people who voted for Trump were as concerned with throwing a grenade at the establishment as anything else."

He is particularly scathing about the rise of the trolls and, indeed, some of the sharpest passages come from his disdain for the agitators and stone-cold lunatics who have weaponised social media. He also recognises the phenomenon as a form of asymmetrical civil warfare; a way for people who think they're powerless to exert their own form of power and control.

In many ways, we're going through a cultural convulsion. It's the result of a perfect storm of circumstances politically, economically and from an obvious technological point of view, where "the Napoleonic instincts of Silicon Valley leaders" have now become even more powerful than most politicians.

"It is," he admits, "frightening and exciting at the same time. If you look back to the low turnout for Tony Blair's election in 2005 (in the UK), for example, you could almost say that people had the luxury of ignoring democracy as long as they had a job and so on... but liberalism is, in a way, in trouble when everything is simply up for grabs and people no longer think they can trust or believe the ­people who represent them."

This is partly behind the current wave of what he refers to as 'authoritarian populism', and in the light of Brexit, he admits that the "EU Commission have dealt with things horribly."

But are we entering a new age of unreason? Certainly, when it comes to climate change, he thinks so, arguing that: "We all know that water boils at 100 degrees, that's a scientific fact and it's a scientific fact that climate change is now an existential threat."

He has no time for 'denialists' and while some may quibble over the finer points of this most fraught of arguments, he's undeniably - as it were - correct that we have politicised science to a degree that people now dismiss arguments simply because they don't like the argument.

After all, we only need to look at the resurgence of measles in this country and across Europe to see that profoundly illogical and anti-science arguments don't have to hold sway with everyone - they just have to hold sway with enough people to become a problem for all of us, not on a theoretical level but in the real world here-and-now.

What makes Nervous States such a fascinating read, however, is that it is slickly written and timely intervention in an era when feelings have undoubtedly become more powerful than facts.

As we finish up, I ask him one last question - "is he optimistic for his kids' future or does, as some of the book may suggest, think we're all doomed?"

There's a pause, and he mentions climate change again, before adding, "we should never take peace for granted".

At a time when the noise of rattling sabres is louder than any period since the end of the Cold War, that's a sage reminder - regardless of your political views.

'Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World' by William Davies is out now. Penguin €14.99

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