A couple of weeks ago, I met a young man who lived in a world of confusion, threat and mistrust.
Within a couple of minutes of meeting, he was telling me that he felt like straight men ‘like us’ were on the bottom rung of society’s ladder.
He followed this up with a story about the deliberate derailment by the US government of a train carrying nuclear waste, an act of state-sponsored vandalism that would create a Chernobyl-like exclusion zone across Ohio.
‘You can look it up anywhere,’ he said. (So I did.)
He was in despair at the state of the world, at how big business and governments are conspiring to wreck the planet, and he explained his plan to raise enough money to buy some land in the country where he could build his own community from scratch, a safe haven for those like him who had ‘woken up’ over the past couple of years.
Before you misunderstand me, this is not an eye-rolling-at-bonkers-conspiracy-theorists moment.
Please believe me when I say that this person had very good reasons to see the world the way they do.
And, while I don’t necessarily share his view of current events, I sympathise deeply with the underlying emotions of confusion, threat, mistrust, fragility and despair and with his urge to escape to a utopian community where everything is perfect.
We Need New Words For This
We all know what manspreading and mansplaining are, right?
Manspreading: Typically of a man: to take up more than their fair share of space, either physically or metaphorically in conversation, etc..
Mansplaining: Typically of a man: to explain (something) needlessly, overbearingly, or condescendingly, especially (typically when addressing a woman) in a manner thought to reveal a patronising or chauvinistic attitude.
Love em or hate em, neologisms identify stuff in the world and the best of these new words can also facilitate change.
Since being able to name and frame the behaviour, I have become more aware of my own tendency to take up space. Sometimes I shut up or pull my legs in a bit.
(Incidentally, the man- prefix isn’t such a neologism as you might imagine. Manswearing — to be guilty of perjury or oath-breaking — goes back a thousand years. I love that.)
Credit to whoever came up with these man- neologisms and I hope they don’t mind me appropriating the -splaining and -spreading pattern for my own purposes.
But first: who here has heard of doomscrolling?
(When I ask this question in the real world, people older than me tend to look puzzled; people younger than me roll their eyes: like, obviously.)
Doomscrolling is what you call staring at your phone or computer, completely incapable of dragging yourself away from the endless carousel of negative news gunge.
And what happens when we do finally tear ourselves away from our phones and re-engage with the world?
A severe case of what computer programmers, statisticians and dieticians call GIGO: ‘Garbage in, garbage out’.
Who better to tell us about the impact of bad news on our psyche than the world’s oldest and largest broadcaster, the BBC:
It turns out that news coverage is far more than a benign source of facts. From our attitudes to immigrants to the content of our dreams, it can sneak into our subconscious and meddle with our lives in surprising ways.
It can lead us to miscalculate certain risks, shape our views of foreign countries, and possibly influence the health of entire economies. It can increase our risk of developing post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression.
Now there’s emerging evidence that the emotional fallout of news coverage can even affect our physical health — increasing our chances of having a heart attack or developing health problems years later.
But bad news isn’t all bad.
Despair And Paranoia
There is no stronger spur to action than the sense that something is deeply wrong with our lives: we’d better fix this now or else.
It’s why humans have a strong bias to pay more attention when things are going badly.
And I’m grateful that we have this bias towards negativity: as I’ve written before, nothing gets shit done like anxiety.
But it is, and should remain, an acute pain reflex.
When that reflex is combined with the chronic negativity of a planet’s worth of bad news gunge, the only reasonable responses, once we’re saturated and burnt out, are crippling despair or reductive paranoia.
Despair is pretty much the only appropriate response if your brain takes a stab at fully understanding and empathising with the depth of misery generated by more than a day’s worth of headlines.
It cripples our belief in our strength to make meaningful change and our drive to leave the world a better place as we depart than when we arrived. In our despair, we retreat, disconnect and close the door to strangers, even friends.
Paranoia solves for despair by reducing the overwhelming complexity of human existence to an easily comprehensible, if false, explanation.
We’re controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring and there’s nothing we can do but escape into a fantasy world with our dwindling allies.
Despair and paranoia are two extremes of rational response to overwhelming complexity and I’m sure you’ll recognise yourself at some point on that miserable line.
Doomspreading And Doomsplaining
That’s why I believe we need new words to swiftly identify — and interrupt — the disempowering, alienating discourse that happens when doomscrolling, whether our own or others’, bleeds into our ways of being, our actions and our conversations.
The aim is to strengthen our belief that we can influence events, make meaningful change and grow a better life for all beings.
So may I introduce to you two new words:
Doomspreading: to dominate a conversation with the perspective that everything is going to shit.
Doomsplaining: to explain how everything is going to shit, especially in response to the alternate perspective that things are kind of going okay.
I told a friend (👋) about the concept on Monday and was thrilled to get this message from her on Wednesday:
I think we need this.
We need to be able to notice what’s happening when it’s happening and we need to be able to step in and stop the drift towards despair and paranoia at source.
Somehow, we need to find a way of throwing ourselves a lifeline to a better world.
Stopping The Doomspread
The way we stop the spread is not to engage or challenge and certainly not to block the superficial content of doom, but instead to hear and empathise with the underlying emotions.
The chap I met at the start of the story was upset because he felt like he wasn’t being heard, that he was being lied to by government, and that businesses he couldn’t control were destroying the planet. All he wanted was the security of his own home and the warmth of an understanding community.
Goddam, I hear that!
Once I’d heard that, this man, this ‘tin foil hat’ (his words) conspiracy theorist, was ready to hear how I see the world.
We parted, each trusting the world a little more.
Ironically, by expressing his beliefs to someone who didn’t believe them, this man’s desire for an understanding community became possible without going through the hassle of setting up a countryside hermitage.
Remember that this method applies as much if not more to ourselves as to others.
If you find yourself doomspreading, pause, and see if you can dig down below the ‘facts’ and instead express your underlying concerns and your unspoken needs.
What do you really need from this interaction? Reassurance? Understanding? Safety? Fairness? Honesty? Choice? Acceptance? Friendship? Help?
This expression of need will be so much more relatable than your rant about Prince Harry and so much more likely to lead directly to a solution that you can actually act on.
The world is complicated. I have so much empathy for people who find it too much — I do too sometimes.
But, as much as we’d love to, we can’t ever fully control; we can only fully collaborate.
The wonderful thing is that, through collaboration, we build trust and this trust creates resiliant and loving communities.
Resiliant and loving communities solve their own problems and, suddenly, our lonely despair and paranoia is replaced with cooperative strength and courage.
So let’s all start by calling out doomspreading: it doesn’t help.