Friday, April 25, 2008

The Outrage Drug

I've been so worked up about the democratic primary race that I've had to take a two-week time-out between the Pennsylvania and Indiana/North Carolina primaries. Watching cable news channels and surfing web sites like the Huffington Post and Politico was driving me nuts, so now all of that is off limits.

I think those web sites and especially the cable news outlets feed two addictions (and I use that word literally) prevalent in people. The first is the addiction to reading and hearing opinions that reinforce your own. "Thank God other people realize how truly corrupt and unfit to govern Hillary Clinton is. What a relief!" It feels good to read many different opinions and angles on that basic belief that seems so clear to me and cries out for reinforcement in the face of its far from universal adoption.

The other is the addiction to outrage at seeing contrary opinions - some people actually think Clinton has what it takes, is more electable, is not so obviously a robotic sociopath dead set on assuming the seat of power at ANY cost. They think Barack Obama is a fraud, or worse, that America's not ready to elect a black president, so even if he's the better candidate - even if he's the ONLY one with integrity and decency - better to vote for the one we think is more electable. (I feel the outrage bubbling up even as I write this).

Those addictions are what drive the ratings for the cable news shows and the traffic to those web sites. But are they serving any other purpose? Maybe they motivate citizens to write or talk about the issues, but you don't learn much by talking with like minded people, and you don't get anywhere talking to people whose beliefs inspire outrage in you. In short, I'm not sure how constructive the emotional responses are - perhaps a sense of injustice or passion for the truth would inspire some to actually do something about the state of affairs - march on Washington, write to your government officials, campaign for a candidate or donate money to a cause. But otherwise, you're merely driving yourself nuts and perpetuating businesses that have tapped into your addiction.

And the cable networks and political web sites have a sense of what works to drive readership - your outraged attendance will only inspire more outrageous coverage designed either to reinforce your beliefs or rail against it.

This tendency seems to be spilling into sports writing and reporting, to ESPN and elsewhere - there's a sense that saying outrageous things - even things that generate hate mail - will get you noticed. And attention is a kind of popularity - the one that advertisers care about. If you can't stand a particular pundit or his views, the best way to handle it is to turn him off. Don't respond, don't criticize, don't mention him. Your emotional outrage is his oxygen, and you can suffocate him by turning away.

If we want the scourge on our democracy that is cable news to go away, we must collectively resist the temptation to give in to our addictions and watch it. We need to be informed of the facts, but to avoid both like-minded and contrary opinions as much as possible.

The chemistry in our brains that draws us to these emotional states probably isn't that different than the kind that drives us to drink or use drugs.

After a few days of enforced withdrawal, it feels good to just say no.

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