Seeking Civics for Anxious Times

This summer, something unexpected happened to me- I couldn’t stomach another news story. I’ve been a heavy news consumer since middle school so this was unusual. For weeks, I took a break. I wasn’t alone: almost everyone I talked to experienced something similar. The news, which people ordinarily cared about, had become of source of stress to the point that they were tuning out.

An American Psychological Association poll found that most Americans have found the election to be a major source of stress. New York Times columnist David Brooks has called it “an epidemic of worry”. The anxiety goes beyond US borders, given the outsize American role in the world: acquaintances from Canada, Sweden, and Australia have mentioned being worried and transfixed by the American political process.

We are united by our anxiety, even though it has many sources. It goes beyond the election, even as the election has been a focal point.

We worry about personal security amid random violence. Mass shootings remain a reality of American life. Terrorism is a particularly potent anxiety-provoker, infecting us with siege mindsets and triggering more negative judgments about outgroups. The lockdown mentality has trickled down to everyday conversation: I heard a colleague use the phrase “securing the perimeter” in describing a personal interaction (and not in an ironic way).

For many American Muslims like me, the worries are compounded; we are threatened not only by the terrorist violence but also the accompanying negative generalizations about Islam. Intolerant and prejudicial rhetoric is reliably followed by significant rise in hate crimes, while tolerant and inclusive rhetoric appears to put a brake on hate crimes. Even the more favorable voices portray us flatly as pawns in a security game, rather than as full citizens or persons. Dehumanized, we become more vulnerable to having our rights taken away, in our schools, our workplaces, and our communities.

There’s ethnic status anxiety. Demographic changes are spurring a nativist backlash. It’s an ugly echo of past ethnonationalisms, and a saddening retreat from humanism and inclusion. Especially troubling is the rise of religious nationalism- where religion becomes an inherited neo-tribal group identity clashing with outgroups, instead of pursuing the common good, and addressing the higher aspirations of the soul.

There’s class anxiety. Wages have stagnated and income inequality continues to grow. Automation and global competition are threatening jobs. Working people feel that future job prospects are uncertain. It’s not hard to find economically depressed communities around closed industrial plants here in the American Midwest, dotted with glitzy payday lenders offering loans at exorbitant interest rates.

There’s environmental anxiety. Every month in this year has been the hottest ever recorded for that month since measurement began. In 2016, we crossed the symbolic threshold of 400 ppm carbon concentration in the atmosphere, well above the 350 safe zone and approaching the 450 ppm of irreversible runaway effects. Without urgent action, we will lose two thirds of vertebrate wild animals by 2020, compared to 1970 levels. The Great Barrier Reef is under severe stress- an underwater structure so prominent it is visible from space, and about 93 percent is suffering from coral bleaching. People are so on edge that a satirical obituary for the Great Barrier Reef rocketed around social media as though it was real.

This worry list could easily go on- the blatant misogyny, the othering of peoples of color, the fraying of democratic norms and institutions, the coarsening of our public life. We have reasons to be anxious, and that can feed the impulse to withdraw and become insular. Is anxiety undermining our ability to reach and problem-solve with others unlike us?

The stakes are high in this moment. Our social order, even in this strained state, rests on an ecological foundation that is being rapidly depleted and undermined. Unless we act now, the environmental crisis will produce far more conflict, insecurity, economic distress, refugees, and public health problems. On Nov. 4, 2016, the Paris Agreement on climate change officially came into force. All governments that have ratified it- the US, China, India, and EU among them- are now obliged to act to prevent the average global temperature from exceeding 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the point of irreversible and catastrophic climate change.

The Paris Agreement is an important signal of global concern, and the recent Kigali Amendment on HFC greenhouse gases is another step in the right direction. But existing national pledges alone are not going to keep us below the danger zone. More change and momentum is needed from the ground up to reduce our carbon emissions. These high-level summit agreements should spur us to act, taking civic initiatives to generate local changes, support advocacy coalitions, and overcome the social dilemmas needed to address our compound collective action problems.

The environmental crisis thus presents a civic opportunity. As artisans combine different materials to form something needed, so civic artisans combine diverse social elements to form rules to address common problems. Engaging in civic artisanship reduces isolation and the sense of anxiety- and it also helps solve the underlying problems.

Fighting for our environmental commons could spark a virtuous spiral, building our social commons. But it needs a kickstart. We who understand this must redouble our efforts and not disengage. We must live and pursue civics in our anxious times.

About the author

Anas Malik

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.