Understanding the ‘meaning crisis’ from a national security perspective


By: Yuri Idris and Rico Idris

Political disorder and political violence are increasingly dangerous problems in western countries, ranging from the Yellow Vest movement in France to climate change demonstrations in Sweden.  The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 further shaped regional demonstration trends. Inspired by protests in the United States, demonstrations against racism and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement also spread across Europe. While demonstrations in the United States focused on systemic racism and police brutality, demonstrations in Europe highlighted the legacy of colonialism. At the same time, the acceptance of violence against the government seems to be increasing. Foreign intelligence agencies use these movements to sow discord, demoralise and attack enemy countries, directly or indirectly. These attacks are two pronged. On the one hand, the belief in these causes is partly self-defeating due to it being mentally unhealthy and detrimental for public policy. On the other hand, the increase in political violence is a threat to national security. 

This article discusses how the meaning crisis and ontological security influences civilians and the consequences on the individual and national security. At first, the meaning crisis and national security might seem faintly related.  We will explain the urgency to protect civilians from malicious internal and external psychological influences, whether intentional or unintentional. When the individual is influenced in a scalable manner, it influences the nation state. On both levels, security needs to be provided by institutional and non-institutional security providers to balance out the power of the state. 

The Meaning Crisis and self-defeating beliefs

John Vervaeke is an award-winning lecturer at the University of Toronto in the departments of psychology, cognitive science, and Buddhist psychology. The meaning crisis is a concept coined by Vervaeke and is discussed in detail in his twelve series online course called the meaning crisis. Precisely defining the meaning crisis is a difficult task, but he argues that there are some symptoms to identify the crisis. One of the symptoms is the mental health crisis, exemplified by increased deaths by suicide, an increase in nihilism, cynicism, and futility, but also in religious and political extremism. Another symptom is the loss of trust in public institutions such as the government, the judicial system and the media, as well as a decrease in public participation and a decline in religious affiliations.

Vervaeke argues that there is a unified explanation, namely that our culture is experiencing a meaning crisis. At the same time, it is argued that this is not the only crisis we are facing. He also mentions that the environmental crisis and the socio-economic crisis interact with the meaning crisis. Independent from a political stance, if one believes that humanity is heading towards catastrophe, then this belief has psychological consequences. These crises are discussed in the public sphere at large, the meaning crisis however, is not

When one thinks very negatively about the society in which one lives, this is unsustainable for the health of the individual. When many people think negatively about the society in which they live, the society will be unsustainable.

Regardless of whether self-defeating beliefs are true and/or justified, they can be harmful to the self and when popularly adopted, it can also be harmful to society. These societal beliefs are sometimes also called luxury beliefs, because of their unsustainability. These beliefs can either be directly attributed to the self or society and can also be combined. Examples of self-defeating beliefs regarding the self,  include feeling worthless and/or feeling less deserving of good things happening to oneself and a mistrust of other people.      

Examples of self-defeating beliefs regarding the society (or even larger, globally) which the person lives in are, the realisation that the success of the west originates from oppressing and colonising non-western people and that the west is systematically/institutionally racist and/or patriarchal. Other examples are the current state of the world is too violent/dangerous/corrupt to bring children into and humankind abuses nature in a parasitic manner or that the world would be better off without humans.

Opposition does not need to be created, it can be found and enlarged by adversaries. Individuals or organisations with self-defeating beliefs can be seen as fuel for sowing discord and demoralisation by adversaries. Entities, such as non-governmental organisations or activists, with self-defeating beliefs can be strengthened through funding or other means, to gain more traction in the targeted country. The effectiveness of such undertakings increases in low-trust societies.

Meaning-making, sense-making and cognition

Ontology is related to our fundamental being, our existence. As living beings, our being is always under threat of nonbeing, non-existence. As beings who want to continue to be, we compete with nonbeing. Nonbeing is a threat to our existence and makes us anxious. It causes existential anxiety, anxiety related to the threat of nonbeing to our being. From an ontological perspective, to secure one’s being, two cognitive processes are essential, meaning-making and sense-making.

Cognition is one of the functions of our body and it is intimately intertwined with it. In cognitive science, the 4E framework is used to try and explain what cognition is. The main idea of 4E cognition is that cognition does not just occur individually. Cognitive processes such as meaning-making and sense-making are collective endeavours, often with people in our communities. Through these processes, values are created and can be enhanced by narratives which support these values. 

The 4E framework states that the characteristics of cognition are embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended. This means that the mind and body are not separate. It can be claimed that there is a very intimate relationship between the mind, the body, and the environment. These various cognitive processes are supported by psycho-technologies, which are tools that enhance our cognitive functions. Tools like maps, pen and paper, computer systems and apps as mentioned in the ‘E’, extended.

Meaning-making and sense-making on an individual and societal level

Meaning-making, sense-making and our psycho-technologies all support and depend on the 4E framework. Cognition needs to be protected in order to reduce the effects of the meaning crisis. The 4E framework is a useful conceptualisation to understand in what manners cognition could be protected. The characteristic ‘extended’ plays an important role in how narratives traverse social networks. Narrative can be seen as a way in which humans make meaning out of their life, in which they take the centre stage in their story. Meaning-making helps to order life’s experiences. It gives direction and helps us to decide how to act in the world.

The identity of the individual can become intertwined with the identity of its group and state. A state can be seen as a collection of one or multiple groups of individuals. A collective expression of the group(s) that make up the state.  It can be said that the being of the individual becomes intertwined with the being (the existence) of the state. This is not strange, because their existence depends on each other. If the group or state dies, this can endanger the individual’s existence. And if many individuals die, the state might cease to exist. The identity (worldview/system of belief, culture, religion, norms, values) of the group(s) that make up the state will inform the ‘identity’ of the state. Meaning-making and sense-making influence the state in a similar way. The state is influenced by the feelings of its population. These feelings influence the state through the individual(s) that participate in the public debate and/or are involved in politics and public administration. This means that when people suffer from one or more symptoms that describe the meaning crisis, such as nihilistic and/or cynical thoughts, then the way the state is being managed is also corrupted. When people value themselves and lose their self-defeating beliefs, their added value to society increases. When a certain tipping point in demography has been reached, it will affect society as a whole.

Modern states are informational states. This means that states recognise and solve problems of governance by collecting, analysing, and distributing information. Nations require good information to deliver social services, public safety, national security and interact with other nations. When citizens are exposed to subversive information, this will destabilise the nation-state. Vervaeke mentions that the people’s cognition is networked together through culture. Hence, any intervention aimed at subversively attacking values, the core of our culture, can become an attack on national security. This is dangerous in a democratic order, as politics is an index of who we are, what we might be and how we might affect change. The public sphere is still the primary locus of political communication. Thus, the public debate is vulnerable to malicious influence, be it exogenous, endogenous and/or by proxy. In other words, the realm of our extended cognition is vulnerable to attack, and therefore it is constantly targeted.

Ontological Warfare and Ontological Security

Ontological warfare is not only an informational kind of warfare, in essence it is a psychological kind of warfare that uses ‘information’. This information can be embedded in a narrative, and it is tailor made for its receivers. This could influence the information ecology of the receivers in a negative way. However, the main target is your psyche. Naturally, warfare in general is also dangerous for your state of being, but it does not target the psyche directly, it is a by-product. Ontological warfare differs in its intentionality.

Ontological warfare is the area of operations of intelligence agencies. Intelligence is one of the major governmental instruments applied in countering informational attacks against national security. The foundation of such organisation’s rests on the psychological concepts of in-group and out-group thinking.  The intelligence services weaponise information about the way of ‘being’ of the out-group (them), in order to protect and push forward the interests of the in-group (us). Due to the extendedness as described by the 4E’s, the in-group is involved in meaning-making and sense-making and so both the individual cognitive processes as group processes need protection.

Balance between institutional and non-institutional security providers

One of the state’s main responsibilities are issues related to protecting, conserving      and securing peace within the social fabric of society. Peace is based on two types of justice, commutative and distributive, of which only the first is relevant for this article. Commutative justice is about forbidding threats of violence, which are generally legitimised by the constitution. A ‘modern’ understanding of the state often assumes that the state provides ontological security, that is, it acts as a shared ontological structure for citizens’ security. The modern state, but not necessarily all the contemporary states of the present moment, is thus understood to be an ontological security-providing institution for its citizens.

In any given society human beings can derive ontological security from two types of sources: institutionalised and non-institutionalised. Institutionalised sources of ontological security involve the provision and management of an ontological framework that makes sense of the self in the context of the larger existential questions that an (individual) may face during periods of stability. Non-institutionalised ontological security providers involve everyday situations, environments, and interactions to the extent that everyday practices are stable and familiar, and (individual) persons will feel ontologically secure in them, for example friends, family, and local communities.
Both institutionalised and non-institutionalised security providers play an important role in ontological security. This is an important divide, due to maintaining a balanced public and private sphere. The state has the exclusive responsibility to define rules and restrictions regarding the freedoms of civilians and organisation, if need be, with the use of proportional force. At the same time, granting the state too much power can also be dangerous. That is why a balance between institutional and non-institutional security providers is required. If non-institutionalised security providers were the only ones responsible, the state would either be weak or at odds with the non-institutionalised security providers. And if the institutionalised security providers were the only ones, the government would become totalitarian, or in the best case scenario it would be perceived as totalitarian. This in turn could lead back to the starting point of this article, with an increase in political violence and acceptance of violence against the state.

Photo credits: Wikimedia commons

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