Raging on the Internet

David Ignatius writes in the Washington Post
that Connectedness today results in the ability of angry people to coalesce on
the Internet and stoke the anger that lies in wider society. He asks if we can
understand connectedness as a “rage enabler” in order to take steps to
re-stabilize a disorderly world.

When I came to my present position I was surprised at the angry e-mail I received from people who don’t know me or have a clue about my beliefs or leadership. At first I was unsure how to recieve these sharp notes and I attempted to respond in a caring and moderated manner. I found that for some this resulted in constructive conversation, for others it merely stoked the fires of their anger. A few wrote to tell me I wasn’t fooling them by appearing to be open to their concerns. They assured me they have heard this line before and it’s one they don’t accept, so I could take my e-mail and, well, you know.

Writing in the Washington Post, David Ignatius addresses the paradox of connectedness and destabilizing anger in a global environment. Connectedness was supposed to bring us together, wasn’t it? We are supposed to see that our common interests lie in working together. But it hasn’t worked out that way, he says.

Ignatius interviewed two analysts who offer explanations about this. I’ll leave it to you to check out their comments. But I do think one underlying issue remains un-addressed in Ignatius’s very cogent column.

While the Internet is a tool that allows angry dissenters more access to others, and to spew anger immediately while passions are hot, the conditions that contribute to anger existed long before the Internet became so readily available. Poverty and injustice fuel popular resentments against elites that, as Ignatius points out quite accurately, I think, result in civic instability.

Whether it’s the government’s reversal in Niger to use oil revenues to combat poverty or the uprising in the oil fields of Nigeria where the armed resistance says oil revenues aren’t trickling down, the underlying issue of exploitation and neglect of the population is at the heart of the anger in such conflicts.

The elites are out of touch with everyday folks. But resistance comes from skilled tacticians who read the mood of the people and capitalize upon their discontents to create instability. Who’s responsible? The elites who are out of touch, or the agitators who are manipulating popular discontent?

It’s as old a question as Saul Alinky’s model of community organization. Community organizers, he said, pour salt on the wounds. But the salt wouldn’t burn if there were no wounds.

So, while I agree that the connectedness we enjoy is also a challenge, I don’t think it’s the ultimate cause. It’s a convenient tool to help pour salt. But it didn’t create the wounds. The wounds are created by the daily humiliation and struggle of poverty. That they erupt with such explosive violence isn’t a wonder to me. In fact, I’ve always wondered why those who struggle for survival everyday don’t blow off frustration more often.

But that takes energy, and when you’ve barely enough to eat or when you’re grubbing for enough money to get through the day, you don’t have time to make social statements.

As for anger in the developed world, there’s another set of issues to be explored. I think it’s about our feelings of being disconnected, voiceless and unable to control conditions that affect our lives. We’re not in the same basic survival struggle that I’ve written about above. But we’re not in control either. And we’re being frustrated, victimized and diminished on a daily basis by big corporations, big government, big education and big health. It’s little wonder that some think church bureaucrats are part of the same mix.

I think you do your best to engage in dialogue. You do your best to serve real needs. And you try to bring about constructive, meaningful change. This is about making connection, after all.

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