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Empathy for Russia after Trump's ascent

  • 15 November 2016


We do not know what the contours of a Trump presidency will look like. Nevertheless, I think that there is already one important lesson we can draw from what has come as a huge surprise to most people: the need for empathy to supplement information.

We talk, glibly, of 'information technology'. The internet and the power of mass computing mean that those lucky enough to have access to a computer can, with the click of a mouse, discover the details of everything from the Investiture Controversy to the Krebs cycle. Those who run security services can, as Edward Snowden and others have told us, tell you much more besides — the contents of your emails, who you spoke to last week or who is slated for annihilation by drone.

Yet all this information can actually be downright misleading. The fact that there is just so much of it sloshing around means we have to filter it somehow. Human nature being what it is, we tend to live in an echo chamber, only listening to the news we like.

Of course, to some degree it was ever thus: Greens voters don't usually buy the Tele and One Nation supporters rarely read The Guardian. With the rise in electronic media, however, this tendency is magnified: by choosing what you see and hear, you never have to know what your neighbour thinks. That way, you also don't have to talk to them, have your views challenged or grow in understanding.

While this impoverishes individuals, cutting them off from others, breeding intolerance and stifling the healthy debates which were supposed to be part of the essence of free speech in a democratic society, it also has lethal effects on the political stage.

The US election serves as Exhibit A. Because they listened only to like-minded people, pollsters, pundits and pollies were blindsided by a Trump victory and are now scrambling to formulate a response.

Yet the deep-seated sense of alienation of people laid off in a globalising world and suffering from economic austerity has been visible (for those who would see it) for years: in the Greek protests against austerity, the rise of Berlusconi and later Grillo in Italy, the Brexit vote, the rise of One Nation and now Trump. Yet somehow, each of these things was always regarded as just one more aberration.

How quickly we forget the desperation of millions when they felt discarded and humiliated in the Europe