Picture: 123RF/apinan
Picture: 123RF/apinan

It is sometimes difficult to come to grips with our angry society. It seems social media in general — and Twitter in particular — has become a war zone annexed by people with radical views. If you spend too much time there you can believe the world is entirely divided into groups of angry extremists. The rational middle ground might still be around, but it seems not to be worth retweeting.

Let’s be clear — the world is full of injustice and urgent causes. We need to acknowledge that black lives matter. We need an end to gender-based violence. We need people to take global warming seriously. We need better education for all. We need corruption to stop. The list goes on, and sometimes the sheer extent of moral calls can become overwhelming.

However, one would expect there would be broad agreement among the rational middle ground about the need for change in most, or even all of these areas. But the middle ground seems to be retreating into silence in fear of being caught in the crossfire of vitriolic anger, inconsistency and excessive virtue signalling.

Instead of moral concerns bringing society closer together, it seems that it is causing greater polarisation and divisiveness. There are two reasons this is happening. The first involves people who are sincere but find they are working with change that is difficult and painful.

The golden rule of ethics is to treat others as you want to be treated. In simple terms, it is to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. However, with a world as divided as ours we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of many.

Truly putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is difficult enough when you share a narrative with that person — for example, being from the same socioeconomic class, race or gender. If you share none of those commonalities it becomes a strain for even the best-intentioned of people.

To an extent, the proliferation of social causes shows that things are changing, and we are perhaps experiencing the birth pains of a more just society. If you have one dominant social narrative it means many people’s voices are not heard.

The space has opened up for people to talk about the injustices they experience. Technology has allowed people to be followed and supported by those who share their experiences, fears or frustrations. But there are downsides. You can’t just politely suggest change is a good idea. Sometimes those who scream the loudest are the only ones who are heard.

So the first reason we see divisiveness is that we simply come from very different backgrounds and people need to be vocal to be heard. The second reason is that there are people who are actively trying to be divisive rather than unifying.

A clear example is in the purposefully ineffective methods employed by political parties to ostensibly “bring about change”. They will vocally assert that the opposition is the root cause of the problem, that they are clearly all bad people. And when it is time to vote on the matter they feign surprise and indignation that the opposition closes ranks and votes against their issue.

The same applies to social media rants where people engage in moral posturing not to bring about change, but for purposes of personal power and aggrandisement. If the opposition supports your issue you can’t claim moral superiority and get more voters (or Twitter followers). The purpose is therefore not constructive social change (moving towards a more cohesive moral position that builds out universal respect and human dignity), but to engage in divisive identity politics. Instead of building up it is breaking down.

Building a more just world requires difficult conversations and more of us being able to put ourselves in the shoes of others. This is enough of a challenge without those who are willfully trying to be divisive.

While Twitter may make us believe the world is predominantly inhabited by those who wish to divide, most of us will know from our everyday lives that most people are part of the rational middle ground. But participating in public moral discourse has become a dangerous activity. Somehow the marginalised rational middle ground needs to reclaim the space.

In an effort to create a less divided world, some new divisions might be necessary. Perhaps the time has come to divide the world into those who want to be part of constructive conversations and those who don’t. Those who are building, and those who are breaking.

• Dobie is senior manager: organisational ethics at The Ethics Institute.