Just how resilient is our society today, asks Dr Dave Sloggett
There was a time when the United Kingdom was threatened by dictators and terrorists in the past where a common refrain in the media was the idea of the spirit of the Blitz – the ability to absorb attacks and carry on. The famous “keep calm and carry on” signs epitomised a society that was resilient irrespective of what Adolf Hitler or members of the Irish Republican Army were doing. Sadly, those days are long gone. Buried in a blitz of social media postings are tweets that underpin the central fabric of society.
The scenes of panic in Oxford Street when rumours spread like wildfire through social media that there had been a shooting that was related to a terror attack provide a case in point. It raises some important issues. The first is a somewhat flippant point. Who the hell is Olly Murs? And, more to the point, what does he know about terrorism and the sound of gunfire? Can he be regarded as a trained journalist who is objective and seeks the truth before making unverified statements?
It is a sad indictment on our society that one ill-informed individual that is a so-called celebrity can have such a massive impact upon people threatening a crush and placing young and elderly people in harms way. That less than ten people were injured in the incident is our good fortune as a society. It could have been so much worse. Lesson one for that so-called celebrity has to be only work on facts, not speculation, you may cause people to be hurt. It was an idiotic thing to do when you have so many people apparently hooked on your every tweet.
On the subject of idiotic behaviour, events at Parsons Green also make you wonder what goes through the mind of people that want to photograph a bomb. Despite it obviously having failed to detonate people seemed to be lining up on the platform to take an image of the bucket in which it had been fabricated. Honestly is that what people do these days to get a like on social media?
Any quick glance at the range of pictures now available on social media of people taking extraordinary risks with their lives in order to be liked does make one ask is this all really necessary. Is self-validation, a natural human weakness, so bad in this social media age that we are literally prepared to risk our lives in order to be noticed? Is life so obscure and bland that we do extraordinary things simply to stand out? Surely those who rallied around after the Grenfell Tower incident to raise clothes and toys for the families that were displaced by the disaster achieved some form of self-validation by simply helping those in need.
It is hard not to conclude that society today is not particularly resilient. Those panicked into fleeing Oxford Street surely were not resilient. How many of them one wonders would have been first to attend a candlelit vigil carrying signs that say “we are not afraid” and that “love will conquer terrorism”. Utter nonsense. If terrorists had the temerity to attack such a vigil one wonders how many would scatter and how many might actually tackle the gunmen or suicide bombers? To really be validated people have to show that words mean action and are not vacuous meaningless statements.
In Madrid, a few weeks after the Barcelona attack, pictures emerged of people cowering on the Underground during a false alarm. Such actions hardly show a society that is calm and resilient. In fact, it shows the opposite. That society lives on an edge at this moment. Arguably, given this position, we can take the view that terrorists have already won. And the simple reason for this is that people no longer think on their own. They act only after consulting social media.
How different this era is to that when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was bombing the mainland of the United Kingdom. That did not see the kind of mass panic that we saw in Oxford Street. People where more stoic and resigned to the inevitability of attacks by the IRA. It became a way of life, a norm into which people grew accustomed to their lives being disrupted. Far more people were killed by the IRA than have been murdered by so-called Islamic State. Across Europe terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s was far more prevalent in Spain, France, Germany and Italy as well as the United Kingdom.
Today, however, events such as terrorist attacks are seen through the magnifying glass of social media. Images get picked up and re-tweeted, eroding societies resilience at every posting or blog comment. People’s opinions polarise far more quickly. Tolerance for other attitudes and beliefs has been eroded. The rise of the extreme right-wing is a testament to that view.
Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity lies in the staunchness of his unwavering left-wing views. The juxtaposition of that is the Prime Minister’s weakness. Few know what she stands for even though it is obvious she has a Christian viewpoint on the world.
The simple fact is that the middle ground in society, which is the counter-weight to extremism, has dissolved. It has disappeared. No wonder everyone reacts so violently to anyone making a statement with which they disagree. Polite debate, once a hallmark of a resilient society, is no more. Political discussions quickly turn to slagging matches which can easily slide into violence.
The problem with this is that this leaves society on edge. Fault lines which naturally exist in a multi-cultural society become a war zone in which competing narratives and racial hatred are fostered. This does not underpin a society. It undermines it. Rotting its core and its ability to correct itself as people recognise they have gone too far and apologise for what they have said or done, blaming the heat of the moment. Far from apologising people revel in the status they find on social media when they are noticed. Rather than a life born of obscurity, something that most of us have come to understand, there is a clamour for being famous.
For the emergency services this poses real dilemmas. If society is not resilient then it is the emergency services who have to provide that backbone and self-sacrifice when the terrorist really does strike. Witness unarmed police officers running into public houses and restaurants during the London Bridge attack telling people to hide and lock down buildings. They had to provide the guidance and leadership on the ground. Not Gold, Silver or Bronze commanders – those trained and tasked with providing the resilient response. Ordinary first responders, those for whom we do little to prepare them for what might happen.
The scenes from Oxford Street provide a salutary lesson for our political leaders. One that they need to heed. Social media has unhinged our society. Made it weaker and more vulnerable to extreme opinions. Those that could simply say their piece down the road amongst their immediate friends, meeting with them face-to-face, can now have an impact on the world stage. It is very unlikely that much good will come of that.
In a situation where societies resilience is breaking down we do not need to cut back our investment in the emergency services. That is plain folly. What we do need to do is to train them to be the leaders of society when the going gets tough. Not when some so-called celebrity thinks it’s a great thing to tweet a message that gunshots have been heard on the London Underground.