Matt Gemmell

Weltschmerz

politics 7 min read

When the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month arrived this year, I was feeling uncharacteristically unenthusiastic about lunch. The two-minute silence for Armistice Day passed without remark. I was on my exercise bike, as it happens, but without any music playing. The sound would’ve been inappropriate, in an unspecified sort of way.

My digestion hasn’t been quite right for a few days now. I have to be more careful about food than usual, which of course is the opposite of what I feel like doing. It’ll go away soon enough, though. These days, this is just how it is at times like this.

The big American vote of “collective insanity”, as one UK newspaper put it, was last Tuesday. I felt the same as this after the Brexit referendum here too, almost five months ago. Then the Prime Minister ran away, and gradually people came to wonder what all the fuss was about, because the majority of the fallout won’t arrive for another couple of years.

It’s not just my digestion, though. Mood is the main casualty. I’m given to introspection at the best of times, but this week I’ve (again) been morose, or shuttered, or irritable. It’s a response to shock — but less so than last time. I think I’m beginning to get used to it.

It seems — and I should stress that it only seems — that we’re in the middle of a resurgence of what I’d call regressive values. There’s the virulent English right-wing movement to leave the European Union, which looks to have been shamefully successful at last via consistently lying to the uninformed electorate. There’s the US election of a monstrous man as the next President. These bitter winds will blow across Germany and France next. Trump’s rhetoric, particularly, has inflamed the deeply-ingrained racism and xenophobia in US society. He has implicitly and knowingly legitimised abhorrent things like racial, sexual, and gender-based discrimation.

For people within America, there’s widespread fear — about devastating damage to LGBT rights, equal marriage, women’s reproductive rights, religious freedom, and the safety of racial and cultural minorities. There are already chilling stories online. For women, there’s the spectacle of a supremely qualified candidate who lost to a buffoon and a misogynist, and the sense that Clinton’s mere gender was a large factor in the result.

And for the rest of the world, we see our generations-old American nightmare realised: the blustering, incompetent bigot-bully, with the nuclear arsenal at his fingertips. The phantom of dystopia and apocalypse again rears its head. Even Russia is sabre-rattling more than usual lately.

A bleak — and even dire — outlook, no doubt with some dark times ahead. But it’s not new. We just weren’t paying attention anymore.

Let’s think about the people. The ones all around us, on our streets and in our towns and cities. The people we see every day. They haven’t changed; not meaningfully, no matter which side of any issue they’re on. They’re the same people they were last week. If their outward behaviour has altered for the worse, then you’ve learned something about them, and perhaps it’s a thing that you ought to know.

Some people are afraid, and injured, and angry. That’s why they voted for Brexit. That’s why they voted for Trump. Hatred of any kind is rooted in anger, and anger is rooted in fear. Of change, or of loss, or of threat. To a way of life, or a religious belief, or a job, or a culture. Fear, then anger, then hate.

Now, those people are somewhat less afraid. Others, like me, are newly afraid, and injured, and angry — and I’m one of the safest and most privileged, in a far better position than any of the other at-risk groups I’ve mentioned. By sheer chance. And I feel responsible.

To some degree, I allowed this to happen.

I have racist family members. I have casually misogynistic family members. I have homophobic family members. I have xenophobic family members. I have disenfranchised family members who not only don’t vote, but who take a perverse pride in the fact, as if it’s some sort of retaliatory snub to the system rather than an abandonment of what little power they’ll ever have in their lives. I have wilfully-uneducated family members who wouldn’t even consider researching a political issue (or a candidate’s stance and policy history), beyond reading the grotesque, manipulative tabloids that pander to and spread useful ignorance. I have them all.

I don’t engage with them. I don’t enter into debate with them. I don’t try to change their minds, or at least to show them what I believe instead. I’ve happily existed in a filter bubble of my own making, secure in moral rectitude and my belief in the inevitability of social progress. And now the bubble has popped.

I’ve been asleep on my watch — and it is always my watch.

These various others are as human as you and I. Their opinions are as strongly held as mine. And in all but the tiniest minority of cases, their motivation isn’t malice aforethought. Mostly, they just feel threatened. They’ve been afraid, just as I am now; existing in a culture which has become strange and vexing to them. In Germany, which may be next to backslide, they have a word for everything, including the anxiety caused by the ills of the world. They call it weltschmerz: world-pain.

The left-wing media, very much including social media online, bears no small amount of blame for the growing sense of complacency amongst people like me. I suspect that it’s being rapidly replaced with despair now; a taste of how the other side feels — if there’s even such a thing as the other side. We forgot that at some point, when we shouted, all we were hearing anymore were the echoes of our own words bouncing back at us. We made it so easy for ourselves to dismiss anything else. It was reassuring. It was comfortable.

But the others heard us loud and clear. They heard it all, and now I know how they felt, day by day and hour by hour, hearing what was unpalateable.

Now, it’s time for me to shout again. I’ll still use words like abhorrent, and regressive, and barbarous — my stance is my own. But I’m going to have to change who I’m talking to.

We’ve survived worse than this is a phrase I’ve often heard here in Scotland. We’ve had dark periods in our long history, and there will be more before the end. But we are here — and so are you. So is England, and Wales, and Northern Ireland, and America, and Germany, and France, and all the rest. All of us, on our streets, with our neighbours and our friends and our acquaintances. Some of them are encouraged and relieved by the apparent change in the western world’s political trajectory.

Not monsters. Just people, whom I stopped trying to convince.

There’s still going to be a world tomorrow. There’s not going to be quite as much liberal complacency, though (oh, how I dislike using the word liberal; as if it requires qualification, or could ever be a bad thing — but others disagree). And if you’re in a similar position to me, then we have a job to do; one that’s perhaps felt like a sinecure a little too often in the last decade.

We must engage. We must talk, and write, and organise, and lobby. We must fight back, whenever and wherever necessary. We must push. We must debate. We must educate, with patience and with the understanding of a shared common humanity. We must try to sympathise with the origin of what’s too easy to dismiss as unexamined primitivism.

But above all, we must be exemplary.

Don’t panic; I’m not suggesting we have to be perfect. Exemplary means to be a characteristic example of something, and that’s where I believe progressive minds have an inalienable advantage. Reasonableness and decency — a fundamental willingness to live and let live — is at the core of refusing to judge someone by their gender, or the colour of their skin, or their sexual orientation, or anything else without tangible bearing or attributable culpability. Reasonableness and decency, when engaging with the vast majority who might just be swayed if the argument was persuasive enough, and delivered without threat or disdain.

Yes, there will be days ahead when reasonableness is impossible, and when decency is neither offered nor given. There will be battle lines. There will be a need to shout, and to fight — and we must. But those days will ultimately occur less and less often — I believe that unshakeably — because we already have a foundation, and a platform, and the greatest amount of social progress we’ve ever made as a species. This is an inflection point in our history; no question. But it won’t be our last.

Some of us have been asleep, and now we’re awake. Thank you, fate, for this opportunity.

I’m Scottish, white, male, English-speaking, of sound mind and body, heterosexual, married, and have no criminal convictions. I’m reasonably well respected. I’m as safe as I can expect to be — and now I know it.

I’m not American, can’t vote in the US (and have no desire to visit again soon), don’t have much spare money, and have no political power. What I do have, though, is a moderate audience, and the ability and willingness to write, and to speak, and to think. I can amplify, in my own small way. I’m listening and reading. I’ll speak out when I’m in the position to. I plan to engage my own family and acquaintances when I perceive their positions to be regressive, instead of wilfully ignoring the issue as a lost cause, or for the sake of avoiding conflict. Within my means, I can — and am — supporting journalism by women, people of colour, and the liberal sphere generally.

I can use the shield of my privilege to resist hate. I will. When it happens — and it is, and it will — I won’t let myself forget. I won’t let it become normal. I won’t let myself think or speak the words that are always the gateway to appeasement, surrender, and horror: it’s not so bad.

We’re entering an active phase of resistance against regression, atavistic prejudice and discrimination, and the erosion of hard-won enlightenment. There have been others before us who fought longer and harder, at much greater personal cost. As we honour them by simply standing in silence for scant minutes and remembering, we must also now do our part.

We may not yet have the world we’d come to believe we did, and we may be anxious at its myriad ills, but we do have a way forward.

And we shall always, always have hope.