Are we heading towards a World of Discovery or a World of Defensiveness?

by Didier Marlier on Friday August 19th, 2022

I never would have thought, when social networks emerged, that they would be dreadful enablers of anti-democratic governments or of violent attempts to overthrow democracy. If they made some wonderful things possible, like the recent solidarity movement in Brazil, in favour of a starving family, it is also used by haters of all sorts, promulgating their infect litany around the globe, feeling stronger, now that they are joined by like-minded sick spirits.

For those of you wishing to get more data and research on how potentially beneficial social networks could be and how damaging they are, instead, I recommend you invest time into the interview of Jonathan Haidt (NYU Professor, celebrated author of articles such as “Yes, Social Media Really Is Undermining Democracy”, July 2022 or “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid”, May 2022).

But is this worrying trend caused by technology or is it deeply rooted in human beings and simply aggravated by a global access to technology?

The French Revolution and its public executions, the KKK and other racist mob assassinations or the 2013 torture and public execution of two innocent tourists plus a local friend, by half a thousand locals, under a false accusation, in Nosy Be (Madagascar)… The list is endless and I don’t think there is a single culture, nation, nor religion that could claim to be immune of criminal mass movements, from pogroms to… hooliganism. But nowadays, technology has a devastating, multiplying effect even though isn’t the cause of these Barbaric actions.

In a recent re-encounter with an Australian MBA friend and classmate of IMD, we were wondering why things went so wrong when, through the support of the internet, collaboration platforms and other social networks, humanity had a unique opportunity to unite behind a shared and humanist purpose:

  • Bad is stronger than Good”: In 2001, psychologists Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer and Vohs, ran a thorough literature search to “review evidence pertaining to the general hypothesis that bad is stronger than good.” And they found all sorts of evidence in areas such as how we react to events (“Bad events produce more emotion, have bigger effects on adjustment measures and have longer lasting effects”), relationships (quoting Gottmann ”in order for a relationship to succeed, positive and good interactions must outnumber the negative and bad ones at least five to one”) etc. Bringing it back to populism, those supporting a positive, inclusive vision of Society are on for a colossal uphill battle against those presenting it negatively, depicting “others” as Evil, not worth our trust etc. In business, this suggests that leaders who have a positive, hopeful and constructive vision of the future, or simply suggest to “roll our sleeves up to save this company” also fight an uphill battle against the negativists, defeatists, cynics and naysayers. Defeating them is feasible, as Gottmann suggests and is costly in energy.
  • Nationalism (a specific version of “Bonding vs Bridging”): Linda Gratton, a London Business School faculty identified two apparently similar behaviours with devastatingly opposite effects. Bridging is about “Good”: It is about going towards the other, embracing the unknown. It is about lowering my guard first, giving trust (and not sending signals that is has to be earned), it is inclusive and curious about why others think differently. Bridging is more risky (see the prisoners’ dilemma), takes more of an effort (as one would expect for Good vs Bad) but there is such a sense of achievement and superior result when it works that it provides a sustainable positive feeling. Bonding “feels” good… Once common scapegoats and enemies have been identified, and we gather with like-minded people, we agree strongly against something, and soon our only plan and strategy is to defeat the enemy, without any clarity of what will be done once we are victorious. Bonding bears in itself the seeds of division, exclusion, politics and internal fighting… Because there is no strategy behind it, once the initial enemy is defeated, we need to quickly create another opponent to hate… Why do so many intelligent and competent business leaders now jump on the Diversity and Inclusion bandwagon? It is not an “effet de mode” but truly a matter of survival. And nationalism, bonding play hard against it.
  • The revenge of the humiliated: It is the “Sans-Culottes” (without underwear) who triggered the French Revolution, out of rejection of the arrogance and distance displayed by the aristocrats. It is the same perception that drove the yellow jackets to blockades the roads of France for several months. Feeling snubbed, excluded and ridiculed turns citizens into revolutionaries. Facebook and twitter are the unique opportunity for the unheard, to turn heroes, thought masters or being spoken about… And that, no matter if what they say is wrong or misleading, as Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist, recently demonstrated (at his expenses this time) on a trial. Harvard professor, Michael Sandel, in his recent book, “The Tyranny of Merit: what’s become of the Common Good?” wonders what has happened to us so that divisive and polarising leaders manage to attract an almost religious followership, that no science, logic nor fact-based reasoning will deter from their conspiracy theories. For him, this is the result of the slow drift of a commendable ideal (Meritocracy) towards arrogance, selfishness and egocentrism, encouraging the lucky ones (those met by success) to believe that they owe their glory and good fortune to no one else but themselves. Following that ideology, those who struggle have only themselves to blame, because of “their lack of determination and education”. The “losers”, being ridiculed and made guilty for their own misfortune have grown a rejection of the establishment and look forward to their revenge.
  • The need to have an opinion: In July 2022, Etienne Klein (a French physicist/philosopher) quoted an amazing poll published in a French daily (Le Parisien): on April 5th 2020, when no one in the scientific community had properly validated/invalidated the impact of a specific drug on Covid-19, the newspaper asked their readers “is that drug able to heal Covid-19?”. Even though nobody could scientifically claim to hold a valid answer, 59% replied positively (this drug heals Covid-19), 20% stated the opposite and only 21% admitted that in the current state of affairs, they did not know (see clip below, in French unfortunately). And it seems that all we hear on social networks are those almost 80% ignorants who see themselves as sole depositors of “the Truth”… Where are the doubters? How highly do we rate those who admit they don’t (yet) know?
  • From “I think, hence I am” to “I have an opinion therefore I am right”: In a remarkable op-ed (June 2022), Belgian business philosopher, Luc de Brabandere laments the predominance of “opinions over facts, injunctions over invitations, invective over proper argumentation”. For Branbandere, talk-shows and other “debates”, witness a drift from “I think to I believe”. For him thinking is an active state of mind, highly demanding, detailed and self-challenging, whereas believing is far more passive, comfortable and accepts no contradiction… He quotes a research from Marten Scheffer (“The rise and fall of rationality in language” 2021) where the author, after having analysed thousands of articles published between 1850 and 2019 witnesses, noticed, from 1975 on, a significant drop in rational terms (To conclude, to demonstrate, to deduct…) towards less rational terms (to feel, to believe, to blame…). And what a fantastic accelerator of this trend, the social networks have been!

Peter Drucker, the Management Philosopher, passed away in 2005, was adamant that “Performing responsible management is the alternative to tyranny and our only protection against it”.

Brazil’s most admired brand in 2021, iFood, expects from all its employees, that they dedicate their Wednesday morning (at work or from home) to Personal Development, every week, every month, every year… Top model, Noella Coursaris, after the initial success of her NGO, Malaika, dedicated to educate young girls in her native Congo, has now enlarged this education to boys (with the support of FIFA) and… to the parents of those children. The impact is considerable. The paradise in which I had the chance to marry and live for a while, Praia do Forte, had the lowest criminality index in Brazil, because the man behind its success, Peter Klaus, decided to educate the whole community to the merits of eco-tourism. The results were impressive.

I write this article as I become increasingly concerned about our collective future and, more specifically the nuisance potential of “haters” of all origins and causes, amplified by technology. It is time for us to “learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools” as Dr Luther King used to say… And we, business leaders, have a fundamental, educational, inclusive work to do in making it happen.

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