For most of history, no matter how disappointed you were in the people around you, in your own hurtful family, or infuriating co-workers, you could at least cling to a larger faith to get you through moments of despair: you could continue to believe in humanity as a whole, in human beings in general, as opposed to this or that faulty, irritating or unpleasant local example. You could look at a large crowd celebrating a national event and - without knowing any of them in detail - you could feel a warm and wide-ranging assurance that, among those people cheering carefully, there were bound to be many sincere and kind souls. You could be sure that, despite all your frustrations and disappointments, you lived among fundamentally decent guys, that even if you were very angry with your mother or full of resentment against the foreman, you could find comfort in your nation and its people.
However, patriotism and a benevolent sense of community are ultimately based on the privilege of not knowing many of our fellow citizens very well. The closer we come to understanding the true nature of any person, the greater the risks of disappointment. Our own family and co-workers are not exceptionally horrible; we just know little about them.
Unfortunately for our resilience, modern technology has done us a disservice: it has introduced us to others on a global scale. There are no longer "strangers", there are simply billions of people who can be seen through their social media accounts and who are willing to present us with their ideas, their puppies, their relatives... and, along the way, their prejudices, their blind spots, their conspiracy theories and their dispiriting enthusiasms for rage and cruelty.
The particular curse of our time is that we can read the newspapers and streams of consciousness of all the inhabitants of the planet. We can see how they line up to punch anyone who's down; how obtuse they are about opinions they disagree with; how they paint their ideological enemies in ruthless colors; how they caricature, envy and resent; how they self-righteously act around each transgression; how they behave as if they were blameless; how they leave us with the certainty that if we ever need help or sympathy, we won't get it.
We may be sad, but we shouldn't be surprised by what we've learned. The broad ranks of humanity have been educated by the most influential force in society for a century or more; they are the obedient pupils of the media. They have been carefully taught to hate and misunderstand, to gossip and resent, to attack and slander, and now they do so with enthusiasm and predictability.
But this genealogy also offers us a path back to hope. People are not cruel to begin with and are not inevitably committed to continuing to be so. They are -more than anything- malleable; and they have been educated in very wrong ways. However, one day they might be inspired by other better sources if they were offered to them. If role models and public messages changed, there could be as much goodness in general as viciousness or lack of empathy today. Armies of digital citizens don't really want to lead others to kill themselves. As a wise and painful observer realized long ago, they just don't know what they're doing.