Society, We Need to Talk

‘The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone- astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships. Only a few of us were able to cry out loudly that the powers that be should not be all-powerful‘ Vaclav Havel

A conversation about China’s social credit score and its danger of bureaucratic absurdities, this week reminded me of this quote from Vaclav Havel’s New Year address in just first year as President of Czechoslovakia. Havel became President of Czechslovakia after the collapse of its communist regime in the Velvet Revolution. The contaminated moral environment he describes is a consequence of the totalitarian state and its pressures on citizens to believe falsehoods and to act in compliance with its rules.

We are seeing the threat of this contaminated moral environment widely in civil society. Our political systems are grappling with the challenges of fake news and media that acts as a tool of propaganda channelling information into media bubbles to reinforce opinions. Social media has become less about engagement and more about brand and image resulting in people portraying fake lifestyles on Instagram and acting as thought leaders across a range of channels by expressing uncontroversial platitudes in pursuit of followers and the satisfaction of acceptance.

At the same time, the recent revelations on the role of data in social media have highlighted the extent to which these platforms and all of digital society is creating a data-based surveillance machinery. In Australia the Banking Royal Commission, has highlighted the extent to which organisations espouse one set of values while acting in pursuit of the financial interests of another set of values.

The only path forward to unwind this threat is for us to engage in the real hard conversations of civil society. We need to resist the calls for cheap and easy solutions offered by demagogues. We need to resist the calls for division and pursuit of the one ideologically true way coming from many quarters. We have to discuss real issues in a meaningful and human way. When trust has broken down and people don’t share fundamental context, we can’t start by shouting at each other.

We can create domains to listen, to share, to understand and to begin to explore the connections that make a civil society. Social media can play a role in creating new connections and new conversations but only if we use it not as media, but as the foundation of community. We will have to widen circles, invite different views, encourage others to speak up and then agree on action. The path forward is not one of loyalty and alignment.  The path forward in a civil society must always be participation and inclusion. Only on this foundation will we find the way to come together and act on the changes necessary to reform our moral environment and support the vibrant civil societies we need to succeed into the future.

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