Gerard O’Connor gives Motley his take on why populism is bad for your mental health.
Covid-19 and the experience of multiple lockdowns have brought the importance of looking after our mental health to the centre stage of 2020. In recent years our quality of mental health has been of growing concern, with the growth of social media being linked to declining standards of mental health. The deceiving bombardment of perfectly tailored posts and photos has damaged the self-esteem of countless people, particularly young people. We have never seen a generation feel as anxious, isolated or depressed as Generation Z. Furthermore, social media has facilitated the rapid spread of information with little to no fact-checking, contributing to the rise of a damaging discourse for modern mental health: populism.
The definition of populism varies depending on the user of the term but generally refers to a method of conducting politics which appeals to ‘the people’ in opposition to the ‘establishment’. It is an ideology which can be found in political movements of both the left and the right across the world and the use of the term can be in relation to a variety of positions such as being anti-immigration, nationalist, socialist, anti-vaccination or anti-Semitic. The ‘us versus them’ narrative of populism has been damaging to mental health, regardless of the causes it has been used to advance. People’s mental wellbeing is the collateral of populist movements.
Sinn Féin has been embraced by Irelands youth who understandably care more about the relevant issues to their lives such as housing and the cost of living than about a paramilitary conflict that occurred long before they were even born. I define them as populist not because of my own political biases but because they themselves have publicly identified as such. On the exterior, their growth may seem like a positive development. However, once we dig beneath the ‘change’ narrative we find that Sinn Féin has developed a division in Irish society that is damaging to our mental health.
The controversy surrounding Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley’s tweets relating to the Provisional IRA and homophobic remarks he made on the day that Ireland saw its first openly gay Taoiseach has exposed a culture of intimidation and misinformation within the party. A young woman left the party after a Sinn Féin member called to her home for tweeting criticism of Stanley’s actions, two TDs were found sharing 9/11 conspiracy theories and one of those TDs compared NATO to the Nazi SS. This culture of spreading fear about the ‘establishment’ has created the Shinnerbot phenomenon, where faceless social media accounts descend on journalists and members of other political parties for any commentary perceived as being unfavourable to Sinn Féin.
This is an approach that develops as a result of populism. First, the world becomes divided between the ‘establishment’ and ‘the people’. Over time anger develops towards the perceived establishment to the extent that anyone who speaks approvingly of them or critically of Sinn Féin must have an agenda against the people.
We are at a point where an entire generation is more anxious, isolated and depressed than ever before. This is a time when we need to support, listen to and respect each other. We cannot let populism continue to divide us to the extent that we will insult anyone we do not agree with. We need to listen to those we disagree with, acknowledge our differences and on many occasions agree to disagree. In Ireland, many young people fairly hold left-wing views. This does not mean that you must embrace the populism of Sinn Féin.
By failing to move away from populism we will continue to see toxic behaviour between people of different political views online, attacking each other behind the safety of our keyboards and screens with no concern for the mental health of the person behind the account at the other end of the attack. For the sake of our generation’s mental health and that of generations to come, let us embrace a more respectful way of conducting politics.