- Tim Mathis
Do you really need to pay attention to the news? In defense of selectively ignoring problems.
I spent a lot of time last week trying to write a post about Ukraine. Instead I came up with this because I realized that I don’t know anything about Ukraine and the world is in no need of another ignorant take.
There’s an attitude among Americans (among others), that the individual can and should change the world. Government ain’t going to help you. You have to do it yourself.
It’s an attitude that’s part of our success and makeup and identity. I feel it instinctively too. I want to be the change.
It’s also a reason that we feel like we need to know what’s going on in the world, wherever that is. We need to stay up to speed with news so we can be involved in changing it. We want to make a difference, and be on the right side of history. That’s not a bad thing. It’s good.
There was a time when this type of approach to life was individually sustainable. With old media, keeping up meant reading the newspaper, maybe watching the nightly news, and being involved in causes you care about in your local community.
With new media though, full, constant immersion is possible in every significant world event happening as we speak, alongside a whole lot of insignificant world events. The future will be live streamed in its entirety.
As a result, what keeping up with the news now looks like is being involved in what Mark Manson called the internet's cycle of outrage. Something bad happens. We see it or hear about it online. Influencers and pundits offer hot takes. We offer our hot takes. Some of those hot takes become accepted truth. GoFundMe’s form. Article are written. Arguments happen online and in person. We feel angry, anxious, scared, frustrated. Sometimes that energy moves up to political movements, sometimes to protest.
Until something else happens.
Then another wave hits. The cycle moves on to the next thing. Attention shifts.
This, I suspect, has always been a general human dynamic. But it used to happen slowly, across days or weeks. Now it moves at the speed of Twitter. We used to perceive that we lived in a rippling sea of history. Now we feel like we are up against the rocks in the midst of constantly crashing waves.
I’m not the first person to recognize this. It’s the world we live in now, and it has been for more than a decade. But it is a thing that I still am sorting how to cope with personally, and I’m guessing lots of other people are too.
History is no worse than it's been before
An important thing to remember is that this cycle of outrage didn’t start because anything meaningful has changed in human history. History is complicated. It’s always been complicated - disease and war and famine and poverty and racism and hatred and sociopaths are nothing new. Things now aren’t notably crappier or scarier than they have been in the past. They’re better by quite a few measures, actually, although we still face apocalyptic uncertainties (just like we always have).
What’s different is the cycle of engagement and social dynamics created by technology. This has changed our perception of our place in the world dramatically. It's made it possible to engage with events personally which historically we would have had no possible means of even knowing about. I can watch Russia invading Ukraine as I write. If I lived 500 years ago, I might not even be aware that a place like Russia existed. Or I might go to my deathbed earnestly believing that it was populated by dragons and giants.
The impulse to change the world as an individual makes sense when you’re involved in small communities, or are working on only one or two big issues at a time. It made a lot of sense 500 years ago, and a decent amount even 30 years ago. But you have to ask how the value that individuals can and should change the world is serving us in the new media environment.
It's an admirable belief, but also, my conclusion is that it will eat you alive - this impulse to change the world, coupled with constant reminders that the world is out of control.
It creates the feeling that everything is immediately urgent, and that you personally need to drop other priorities to address everything all of the time. That’s not sustainable or realistic.
The cycle of outrage works, but it also will kill you
I’ll admit it.
Sometimes the groundswell created by this cycle leads to meaningful change. It creates protests and actions and turns local issues into international issues in a way that can be genuinely powerful. That is one reason we have a hard time disengaging from the cycle of outrage. A lot of times it works.
But just as often the cycle of outrage prevents change and creates only frustration, when momentum that had gathered for one issue dissipates into the emotion of another. Or, just as frequently, when competing cycles of outrage crash into each other and create warring factions within communities.
And also our attention and our desire to change the world is clearly and intentionally weaponized. Because the process is manipulated intentionally by people who understand the cycle, it’s quite easy for propaganda to work its way in rather than truth. Of note: Putin used (and is using) the cycle of outrage to convince Russians that there are Nazis in power in Ukraine and Russia needs to remove them - just like they did during World War II.
It's impossible to live engaged constantly in the cycle, or to trust it. Eventually it drives individuals to despair. You can’t actually have an impact on every outrageous world event - even in your own town, let alone the world. You will end up going down paths you'll regret later. You'll burn out.
So what are you supposed to do?
I don't know man, but in my opinion:
It’s important to engage with the causes that are important to you. It’s important to make a positive impact on your world however you can, and to be part of the positive winds of change.
There's also nothing wrong with staying generally aware of what's happening in the world, which is good because nowadays it would be hard not to.
But it is also entirely appropriate to be very selective about the wave you choose to ride.
As with all things in life, you have no option but to set boundaries. You’re a powerful influential person and all of that, but you’re just one person, and you only have so much time and emotional energy. It's okay to admit that you don't have the ability to tackle it all. It’s totally healthy to step out of the outrage cycle if you’re already working on something different, or if you can’t make a reasonable impact, or if the problem is actually stupid, or if you aren’t involved in any meaningful way. Not everyone can or needs to have input on every issue. If you try, it will eat you alive.
Strategies to keep your sanity instead of watching the news
When confronted with a wave of outrage, I think a helpful strategy is to ask yourself whether it actually matters. There’s a lot of stupid crap that’s thrown our direction constantly, because outrage is economically valuable and politically useful.
Then, if you decide that it does matter, ask yourself if your impact on this thing will be significantly affected by avoiding emotional engagement with it. I.e. can you actually make any difference on this event? Are you likely to? Do you have the bandwidth?
If not, then you are justified in letting it go.
Some people check out and walk off into the woods altogether - literally or figuratively. I can’t judge you for that. I’ve moved more down that track than I used to be because I’ve realized that anxiety will kill me otherwise. I think it’s important to do so from time to time, and leaving for a while can be a nice reminder that day to day life actually isn’t as chaotic as the news makes it seem. Take a break. You'll be stronger after.
I also think it's important to regularly consider reorienting your relationship with the world. Don’t let social media dictate the terms of your engagement. Maybe delete Twitter and subscribe to a newspaper for a healthier relationship with news? A slower drip may be better for all of us. Definitely clean up your feeds and get rid of the provocateurs. Don’t let the pundits decide what you should care about.
I don’t advocate checking out of reality entirely. The world is a mess. We do still need to work on it collectively.
But do you personally need to feel bad about every terrible situation? Or take action on every bad situation? Or even pay attention to every situation?
It’s an impossible task to "keep up with the news" in the internet age, so you might as well resign yourself to setting your boundaries appropriately.
The world has a lot that needs fixing, and a lot of life is about figuring out how to contribute. But remind yourself that history is not more of a mess than it ever has been. It just feels that way because we live our lives standing in a firehose of pain. You have a responsibility to do what you can to make the world a better place, but you really don’t have a responsibility to drown yourself in the spray.
For more tips about preventing the modern world from eating you alive, see The Dirtbag's Guide to Life.