“A winter of global discontent is looming,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week. “Households brace themselves for the winter of discontent,” noted the Irish Times. “The nation faces a winter of discontent,” warned the Irish Independent. “We’re in for a real winter of discontent,” the Times said.
e will often hear the phrase “Winter of Dissatisfaction.” But where does it come from? Perhaps surprisingly, its original context is optimistic – albeit quite gory. The opening of Shakespeare Richard III finds Richard alone on stage and voices his thoughts:
Now is the winter of our dissatisfaction
Made a glorious summer by that York sun…
Richard assassinated the former King Henry VI and allowed his own brother Edward to take the throne. Henry was of the House of Lancaster; Richard and Edward are of the House of York. The accession of a son of York, then, is like the sun chasing away the winter of the previous reign.
The mood has found an odd echo in the British news cycle in recent weeks, as the looming winter of discontent was banished from the headlines by the death of a monarch and the accession of her successor. The shared mourning and spectacle offered some respite from their broken politics.
Aside from watching this spectacle from afar, there has been little respite from the bleakness of the news – a bleakness that seems to seep into the nation’s psyche. A former President of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), Síona Cahill made it onto Claire Byrne’s Radio 1 Collect On Friday, “people feel like a crushed can of Pepsi.”
For good reason. As Guterres summarized at the UN, “A cost of living crisis rages, trust is crumbling, inequalities are exploding and our planet is on fire.” Though the pandemic appears to be over, we are only now grappling with its aftermath.
Psychiatrist Brendan Kelly, who wrote a book titled early in the pandemic Dealing with coronavirus: How to stay calm and protect your mental health, noted that there can be an “expectation problem” after a crisis like Covid. “When everyone is waiting for things to get ‘normal’ again, we idealize ‘normal,'” he said. “The reality of ‘normal’ can be a disappointment for some when it finally arrives. Was “normal” really that good for others?”
For many, the death of loved ones means there can be no return to pre-pandemic normalcy. “Griefing and adjustment takes a lot more time than we routinely allow for ourselves and others,” Kelly said. “This can lead to general anxiety in addition to grief.”
Incidents such as the Garda car ramming in Cherry Orchard, Dublin last Monday night appear to be both a symptom and contributor to this malaise.
I asked a teacher at an inner-city Deis school if her students felt this discomfort.
“There have been huge losses during Covid – loss of freedom, loss of health, loss of wages, death,” the teacher said. “Adults don’t have a culture of talking about loss, so children don’t have loss language. People don’t even know why they’re angry.”
So people are devastated, scared, angry. The causes are too great for us to address as individuals. But is there anything we can do to influence how these causes affect us? Even if a “magnificent summer” is still a long way off, can we at least sour the dissatisfaction of winter?
That thought brought me back to a source I quoted earlier: the late Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, whose book objectivity, was an unlikely global bestseller in 2018.
Rosling’s thesis is that we’re bad at processing the facts of the world around us. We process information as stories and look for the most dramatic stories to consume and share. It’s almost always bad news – and often bad news exaggerated.
We have an “overdramatic worldview,” Rosling wrote, and it springs from various instincts that may have equipped us well for the hunter-gatherer life, but are now maladjusted. The “negativity instinct” means we notice the bad more than the good: good news, as they say, is no news.
The “gap instinct” is our tendency to see binary splits and conflict when reality is often far less polarized. (A striking example was last week’s focus on Northern Ireland census results, which showed Catholics in a majority for the first time, reinforcing the partition narrative, while the most striking demographic trend in the north is middle ground growth.)
The “fear instinct” is the strongest of Rosling’s dangers. “It appears to be the fear instinct that most influences what information is selected by news producers and presented to us consumers,” he wrote.
These headstrong instincts that manifest in our media and social media aren’t just bad for our mental health; they have implications for real-world politics. The ever-increasing “energy crisis” fear feeds the demand for “security”: the more panicked people are, the more they search for something solid to hold on to.
This was precisely the social mechanism that led to the bank guarantee in 2008: as panic swept the markets and threatened to engulf the public, the government attempted to provide reassurance in the form of the guarantee – a reassurance that turned out to be false.
The burden on the Treasury of an energy price guarantee would be far less than that of a bank guarantee, but the policy shares similar weaknesses: we have no idea how much it will cost; it might prove very difficult to relax; it encourages moral hazard. But like the bank guarantee, the demands for an upper limit on energy prices also have a self-fulfilment dynamic: the louder the calls for “security” become, the greater the feeling of crisis and the more necessary this certainty becomes.
So what to do? One option, of course, is to simply switch off. This seems to be a growing trend; I even heard it from journalists. Journalists have always been news junkies; Smartphones and social media have exacerbated this addiction and made it possible for everyone else to partake in it. We need to break that addiction, but we also need to stay committed.
Rosling advocated “objectivity”—trying to convey your media and social media consumption with an awareness of how that media is produced. “Remember that we live in an interconnected and transparent world where reporting of suffering is better than ever,” he wrote.
The point isn’t that suffering isn’t real or that it shouldn’t affect politics. But in a world of constant and multiple crises – “polycrises” – policies driven by the urgency of the crisis will fail to address the systemic roots of these crises. And in the meantime, those of us who are not policymakers but whose news consumption is driven by the ambition to be engaged citizens risk having that ambition overwhelmed by unrelenting desolation.
“Remember, the media and activists depend on drama to get your attention,” Rosling advised. “Remember that negative stories are more dramatic than neutral or positive ones.”
Education is not a panacea. But it is a necessary first step. As Rosling said, it will give you “the basic protections so you and your kids can keep watching the news without being sucked into the dystopia on a daily basis.”
We will have enough reason for our own authentic dissatisfaction this winter without engaging with the dissatisfaction generated by the media and social media – cleverly manipulated by the politicians.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/there-is-no-need-to-turn-crises-into-dramas-42014775.html There is no need to turn crises into dramas