Witch Hunt 2.0: High-tech in the computer – Middle Ages in the brain!

Illustration and text: Susanne Gold

With digitalization, he came into the world: the “Homo Protestus”, as I call him. You meet him in the social media. And if he had his way, witches would be burning in public places again today for the entertainment of the people. If he had his way, the death penalty and torture would once again be the norm. Homo Protestus smells evil conspiracies around every corner. He insinuates, hates and despises. He loudly demands revenge and retribution in the social media for his fate in the evil world: he constantly smells danger and deceit. The world of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on the one hand and the “real” world out there on the other, where we meet in the flesh and look each other in the eye, are obviously very different. But how can it be that the same brains that greet each other in real life at the same time pour hate, meanness and insinuation into the internet?

It is not because of our world community, which has never been better!

We stare spellbound at our mobile phones and search for ever new facts and information. In the process, our media consumption becomes a vicious circle. In the labyrinth of information we do not find security, but become even more worried. The daily flood of horror news paints a ghastly and – above all – a distorted picture of the world. The impression is that we are worse off than ever. The longing for the past is great:

“Great again” is the battle cry of the Homo Protestus species

Yet almost everything was worse in the past. If you look at the facts and figures in the right context, you have to admit that the world has never been as good as it is now. Whether it’s health, yes, even dealing with epidemics, infant mortality, the fight against extreme poverty, world peace, self-fulfillment, time free from work and much more that was only a utopia in the past – almost every statistic proves that there is no trend other than the trend for the better!

So why is Homo Protestus in a mood of doom?

The flood of information has increased exponentially, along with the power of computers. The world’s accumulated media coverage is always just a mouse click away – and fires out mainly bad news. But why? In the diversity of media output, journalists today have to vie for the attention of a notoriously overstimulated readership with the means at their disposal. In addition, journalists themselves are subject to distorted perception. Journalists, like everyone, also tend to perceive the bad rather than the good.

We all have this “negative instinct” that once protected us from danger

This instinct dates back to a time when our ancestors had to constantly defend themselves against serious threats, hungry saber-toothed tigers and belligerent neighboring tribes. Our survival once depended on sensing danger. But in the digital age, this instinct seems to have turned into its opposite: We project fears onto things, worry about threats that, in the light of the facts, are not threats at all. In the flood of news of our time, we constantly smell danger and threat where there is safety. With the result that our negative instinct today fishes out the worst from the flood of information and makes us believe that the world is getting worse and worse.

Threat and blame: why does Homo Protestus hate?

Neuroscientists provide the answer. Fear is a condition that humans do not tolerate well. We transform it into aggression. After all, it was our aggressive defensiveness that sprang from our fear and saved us – for example, from our predator, the saber-toothed tiger. The latter, however, has long since died out. We no longer have any predators. But our fear still transforms into aggression; our saber-toothed tigers are now on the net as negative headlines.

Of the fear of Homo Protestus

Like all of us, he still belongs to the species of Homo Sapiens, despite digitalization. And he doesn’t tick digitally, but still in a Stone Age way. Homo sapiens have firmly anchored needs that drive them: Eating, drinking, sex, love, sociability, spirituality, solidarity, cooperation and self-defense. One of the most important systems in our brain has no other task than to weigh up how to satisfy all our needs. In our cognitive primordial brain, the limbic system, those emotions boil up that are passed on to the front areas of our brain.

Our evolution is not keeping pace with our technologies. It is not growing exponentially

If it did, all humans today would have a flat and square right foot, better suited to the accelerator pedal of our car. But we don’t have that because evolution is slow to change. So we still have those feet with which we travelled long distances to find food. So it is our primeval, archaic emotions of attack and defence that become active in social media. Norbert Elias describes wonderfully in his “Process of Civilisation” how we had to learn to regulate our spontaneous needs in social interaction. We painstakingly learned to postpone our needs in favor of civilized interaction. During civilization, we grasped and established a few rules: Among them, things like no sex or excretion in public, not eating with your hands with and not hitting a competitor over the head with a rock. The list is long of renunciation in favor of civilized interaction.

In this interaction, other civilized strategies of attack and defence – diplomatic strategies – became established

Elias called these “interdependence chains”, by means of which we learned to weigh the consequences of our actions. Until today! Until the internet and social media were invented. Digitally, our libidinal needs can be acted out in a new and spontaneous way. This is obviously especially true for the instincts of violence and aggression. The latter seems to be strongly represented in social media. No wonder – the complexity of our world is frightening. And where there is fear, there is aggression.

What limits our compassion?

It is probably made possible by physical distance. As early as the 1960s, psychologists came to the conclusion that we divide the space around us into concentric zones, i.e. into close and distant relationships. According to this, relationships in social media belong to the distant contacts. These distant acquaintances are easier to insinuate, insult and offend. It is simply easier to blaspheme if you do not know a person’s worries, needs and hurts very well. It diminishes compassion. Then there is the human habit of comparing ourselves. Today, you can not only network worldwide, but also – compare! In social media, we are susceptible to anything that promises happiness. Never before have humans had this expanded opportunity for social networking. Never before have we been able to present ourselves with such a wide reach, increase our reputation and social appeal. Those who want to be recognized and seek belonging have always joined a social group. But, whereas in the past people only allied and compared themselves with their immediate surroundings, today they can do so – digitally – with the whole world.

Frustration is inevitable – there’s always room for improvement!

Anyone who has a bit of life experience knows that comparisons bring one thing in particular: Frustration! In all our uniqueness, we are only comparable to each other to a certain extent. We try to measure and define ourselves by comparison and yet we cannot be measured by others. Whereas in earlier societies, where people’s lives were similar, we were also similar to each other, with increasing individualization and our unique life plans, we are becoming more and more individual. Comparisons are becoming more difficult, we are becoming more diverse. Our biographies are becoming “diverse”. Unfortunately, social media nevertheless function as a realm of seduction: we compare there what is not comparable – ourselves with others, our lives with those of others – and become frustrated. The frustration becomes aggression and can be acted out in the distant relationships of social media as ruthlessly as if we had never gone through a process of civilization. At our computers, Homo Protestus sits like a medieval inquisitor demanding revenge for imaginary threats. He forgets that at the end of every computer sits a human being. Some of them are released for digital witch-hunting, no trace of empathy.

How can we establish empathy today, even across digital distances?

Where the absurd truth claims, outrages, insults, accusations and conspiracy theories of Homo Protestus will lead is open – whether they will lead to a new reality, or become boring for participants and audience, whether new radical minorities will form or the different groups will get into a real – analogue – dispute with each other, that remains to be seen.

“In confession, a subject binds himself to a certain truth and thus shows who he is”, Michel Foucault wrote in the first half of the last century.

that one’s own martyr role is constantly imagined and displayed. Where is this quote more true than in the social media? The aggressors always present themselves as victims in their accusation. Those who understand that their aggression stems from their fear also understand why they see themselves as martyrs. Probably the only way out of this dilemma is a conscious focus on the good news of our world: the mindful and differentiated view of a reality that – if one takes out generalizations and prejudices – is much better than claimed. The tools and methods of our time are more advanced and geared towards global networking and fraternization than our thinking, which still ticks in attack and defence of a time long gone: There is so much positive out there. We should only learn to see it too.

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