On The Failure to Understand: The Psychology of Weaponised Reactivity
The idea that we are on the brink of dark times is not a new one. The difference is that today emotional reactivity has been weaponised by social media, making mutual understanding even more difficult and the world more dangerous.
Singular events that threaten to unravel into larger global conflicts are certainly not new. I remember all too well marching against the invasion of Iraq in 2002. About a million of us converged in London's Hyde Park in an attempt to send a message to our governments not to invade Iraq in response to 9/11. Our protests went unheeded and the response was predictably rash and deadly ultimately making the world less safe. The consequences of that decision, borne of reactive compulsion and the delusion that simple solutions can resolve complex problems continue to this day.
The resonances to 9/11 and the catastrophic response to it are frighteningly resonant in the wake of the October 7th attacks. The Israeli ambassador to the US has referred to it as “Our 9/11” and President Biden has warned Israel not to make the same mistakes the US had. Perhaps the most salient lessons that should have been learned include:
How quickly sympathy runs out when a government pursues an agenda of might to appease its own population’s fury.
The fact that acts of terrorism, wherever they might originate, cannot be resolved by military action against nation states.
That faulty intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq has permanently eroded trust in intelligence agencies as a source of reliable information.
And perhaps most importantly, the false assumption that the rest of the world would sympathise with America’s wounds and support its retaliatory actions.
Peter Neumann, professor of Security Studies at Kings College London agrees that it would be in Israel's interest to heed these lessons:
“Americans overestimated how much the hurt and anger that the US was experiencing [after 9/11] was what the world was experiencing … A lot of people in the world, including allies, don’t see it the way the Israelis do and won’t support them all the way. The dynamics have changed for Israel but not for the rest of the world. That’s a lesson the US learned the hard way, and Israel is at risk of falling into the same trap.”
As if these parallels weren’t worrying enough, the context in which they are unravelling are substantially worse. Unlike in 2002, more than 60% of the global population is on social media, from which more than half get breaking news. Social media doesn’t thrive on nuance, truth, and an aim towards mutual understanding. Furthermore (and more on this later) the kind of information, truthful or not, that is disseminated across networks like Twitter (X) are highly influenced by non-neutral algorithms as well as highly influential non-neutral agitators like Elon Musk. Social media thrives on outrage and emotional contagion, the consequences of which are decimating our capacity to understand one another.
Reactivity Is a Short-Term Fix - Not a Long-Term Solution
While we can’t directly apply theories of individual psychology to groups, nation states, and populations, they can help us better understand the dynamics underlying what’s happening in the world right now. For example, when an individual is under threat, they react reflexively under the direction of the self-preservation instinct. These instincts come online under physical threats as well as threats to the sense of self, for example, a cherished identity. When under threat one instinctively reacts to defend themself, fight back, or run away.
The moment you’re under attack is not the time to reflect on your aggressor’s perspective or seek to resolve it through reasoned discussion. You become reactive so you have the necessary resources (adrenaline and panic response) to survive it. This is when reactivity at its best because it serves to get you through the emergency so you can live another day.
Once you’re safe your thinking resources return and you’re better able evaluate what to do next or prevent similar conflict in the future. There’s no guarantee that the choices available to you are going to be ideal, but it does mean that the options tend to be wider than flight, fight, or freeze.
This is all pretty straightforward for a one-off event, but when the emergency has been going on for some time, it can lead to a permanent state of reactivity whereby the survival mechanisms are forever engaged and there’s little opportunity to step away and recover.
A similar situation can occur when there is no actual violence happening in the present but a history of perpetual violence has created a situation of hyper-vigilance; an individual who has grown to expect it whether it’s actually there or not. This is often what we see in people who have experienced significant or repeated trauma in the past. It can even be experienced when one’s ancestors have been traumatised and that trauma is passed down trans-generationally.
In a short summation of the above, we need to be reactive when we’re in danger, but it’s no good for us to remain in a state of reactivity when we’re not.
The Psychology of Reactivity:
Understanding the difference between reaction and response are central to my work consulting with organisations to create more harmonious workplaces. And while I’m the first to admit that it’s quite a leap from the boardroom to geopolitics, I’d suggest again that the dynamics are similar enough to be illustrative. Once the dynamics of reaction and response are understood, that understanding can be applied to relationships, workplaces, and yes, with some elements of appropriate nuance, conflict negotiations. Using less triggering examples can enable us to get our heads around much more serious situations.
Let’s take the simple example of having received an aggravating email. A reactive response would be to fire off a hasty response that carries your aggravation, a choice that is likely set off a chain of reactions that will escalate the conflict. On the other hand, one can register the emotional impact of having received an aggravating email, sit with it for a while, recover, and then choose how you wish to respond instead of reacting. Perhaps that might mean waiting until you are less angry to send the response or deciding that the situation is better handled with a phone call. You may even find out that your aggravation wasn’t related to the email at all, but something else altogether.
When one is in a state of reactivity a series of things happen that reduce stand in the way of making a good decision about how to best handle it.
Reduces the capacity to think, limiting the choices of how you might respond.
Makes you defensive and less able to see the situation from the other person’s perspective.
Is “hot” - meaning you’re more likely to react emotionally, which will in turn trigger the other person to do the same.
Makes us think in binaries, white/black, good/bad, victim/aggressor thereby diminishing our capacity to find a compromise or mutually beneficial outcome.
To make matters worse one may be feeling reactive for a variety of reasons that aren’t even related to the event that just happened.
You may have interpreted the email in a way that wasn’t intended.
You might have already felt vulnerable for another reason when you read the email.
The person who sent the email might remind you of someone else with whom you’ve had conflict.
The email is simply the trigger that opened up your feelings about something older.
Because emails are instantaneous and so easily sent, they are fundamentally more vulnerable to provoking reactivity. While we can also be reactive in face-to-face encounters, the interpersonal complexity that is also at play (facial expression, tone of voice, body language, and rules of decorum) often help to regulate things down. With an email, you’re experiencing all your feelings in your own head, and reacting from there.
Social media is like a hurricane of angry emails send to no one in particular and one that, to mix a metaphor, snowballs. Righteous indignation is stated and is amplified by agreement on one side or enthusiastically clobbered by the other. Then evidence is brought in to double-down on the positioning – horrific, graphic, video evidence brought in, shared, and made viral, to continue to reinforce positions even further by amplifying the outrage. And to what end? Certainly not understanding, because to understand you need to step a away from binary thinking, not reinforce it.
Social Media Thrives On The Failure to Understand
In a previous post I discussed the psychology of weaponised reactivity and how social media platforms like Twitter (X) and Facebook profit from our outrage. The nature of this shared outrage generally keeps us in a state of continuous reactivity that does all the bad things I’ve been discussing above – it limits our thinking, reduces our capacity to understand one another, and contributes to a binary way of seeing the world – ultimately dividing us further.
In that post I suggested that core issues like colonialism, injustice, religion, ethnicity, race, and identity further amplify the very real horrors that are occurring daily on the ground. Those of us who may be safe from the localised terror may have lost loved ones, have loved ones at risk, or will otherwise be deeply identified with what’s happening there for cultural, religious, ethnic, or political reasons. The strong feelings that arise with these emotional investments and identifications are then vented on social media, reifying consensus on the one hand, and provoking conflict on the other. Welcome back to the binary.
The Symbolic Equation
Binary thinking involves what is understood in psychoanalysis as the "symbolic equation" whereby the distinction between a symbol and what it stands for disappears. This is why many Jews may feel threatened by the display of Palestinian flags and why criticism of Israel may feel like anti-semitism. This is not to deny the presence of anti-semitism too. It's the very same symbolic equation that makes Jews in the diaspora vulnerable as they are associated with the activities of the government of the State of Israel whether they support it or not (not to mention Israelis themselves, many of whom don't and haven't been supporting their government for some time).
It's also the symbolic equation that equates the activities of Hamas with Palestinians, or even Arabs and Muslims in general. The symbolic equation is a bad thing. It enables both sides to see the other as the same as terror or occupation - which enables the very kind of horrific behaviour we see today.
On The Failure to Understand:
Being in a state of reactivity requires a failure of understanding because understanding itself undercuts reactivity – it humanises the other side. A failure or refusal to understand the other contributes to dehumanising the other. Understanding doesn’t mean exonerating heinous acts nor justifying the unjustifiable; but it does mean accepting that there is a meaningful context underlying events. The refusal to understand is a guarantee that mutual reactivity will continue, probably towards mutual destruction.
To be clear here, I’m not talking about peace brokering here, that’s well above my pay grade. I’m talking about the divisive global fallout that we’re all experiencing around this regional issue. We all have skin in the game. And because social media is handy to us, that tends to be where we’re playing that game.
Given my own skin in the game, I have struggled daily with how I may or may not wish to share this on my socials. In the beginning I decided to just stay silent on the issue. After all, as I have written elsewhere, I believe social media to be essentially gesticular in nature and incapable of carrying the kind of complexity and nuance I might wish to share. But silence is a gesture too, and I found myself at the same time compelled to say something. It wasn’t until October 16th that I posted this Instagram Story.
My approach on Twitter was slightly different. There I posted a variety of tweets that were indirectly speaking about the conflict without addressing it directly. On October 13th I published a blog post which I shared on Twitter, and on the 21st I shared my personal dilemma in this short thread:
This must have struck a chord because I received several DMs from people sharing that they felt similarly. Then, on October 25th I was struck by the reaction that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres got when, after taking great pains to be clear that the events of Oct. 7th were appalling and unjustifiable, acknowledged that they “did not take place in a vacuum.” This statement of the obvious provoked what CNN has called a “furious diplomatic spat” between Israel and the UN. CNN reported that
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, called on Guterres to resign, saying he had “expressed an understanding for terrorism and murder.”
To be frank, I was appalled that someone was being asked to resign for understanding something (while clearly also condemning it). In response to that I tweeted the following:
Many responses to that tweet deliberately misread my words in much the same way that the attack on Guterres was attacked for “understanding” despite clearly condemning Hamas at the very same time. Some respondents literally changed my words from "understand" to "justify" and another insisted, "there is no context for terrorism."
These responses don't just demonstrate a failure to understand, but I would argue, a wilful (though potentially unconscious) refusal to understand or even receive the tweet as it was intended. To argue that there is no context for terrorism is nonsensical. There is a context for everything. And we we see the evil symbolic equation arise again - to deign to understand the context of something, as Guterres and I have done, is symbolically equated with justifying it.
One of the forms that social media can take is an attack on understanding. And as an attack on understanding, it’s an attack on all of us.
To be wilfully misunderstood like this is quite painful. But being subject to this misunderstanding nonetheless enabled me, through personal experience, better access the psychodynamics of how the current conflict is being mediated through platforms like Twitter, even if the conclusions I arrived at disturbed me even further.
What Are We Posting For Anyway? What Are We Hoping To Achieve?
Having written a book on the subject, you’d think I had a pretty good idea how to answer this – but there’ve been a lot of developments in social media and global politics since its publication in 2014 and my thoughts have developed further. That question “why” we post is an important one, and different today than when I was mainly looking at it through the early days of Facebook, and Twitter long before Musk.
To be frank, looking at my own struggle with what to tweet and what not to tweet over recent weeks I was confronted with my own narcissism that it matters at all!
Nothing I said or didn’t say makes a lick of difference to what’s happening on the ground. All it accomplished was triggering my own reactivity and keeping my attention on my phone instead of my immediate surroundings (a dear friend was visiting during that last set of tweets).
Despite the fact that social media seems to make us unhappy we keep going back for more. This is their purpose, as Johan Hari has pointed out in his recent book Stolen Focus. While outrage isn’t a particularly nice feeling – it is a sensational one. Venting, after all, feels good, that’s why people do it. Being right feels good, being righteous feels even better. And yet it doesn’t really accomplish anything except keeping us coming back for more. It’s like being addicted to poison.
We’re Going To Have To Take Responsibility For Our Own Understanding
Just like anybody else I tend to get addicted to stuff that’s not so good for me. And just like anybody else, knowing it’s bad for me generally isn’t reason enough to give it up. Having said that, I have also identified that it’s not good for us either. I believe that there is a direct correlation between our engagement with social media and our incapacity to create space for complexity and mutual understanding. We need to think very carefully about how we turn this situation around.
If I’m going to die on any hill, it’s going to be the hill of trying to understand it. Do not condemn me for trying to understand, because I ain’t gonna stop. Also, I’ll let you know when I’ve got there.