Someone made a comment to me today that they guessed everyone I talk to must be pretty down about what’s going on in the world right now. I replied that no, actually, people have their own worries and troubles, for the most part. Some people who work in the financial sector are stressed about the volatile markets, and those who work in the non-profit sector are worried about funding cuts. But on average, people coming in for counseling aren’t spending a lot of time worrying about what’s happening politically or economically.
You wouldn’t know that by reading the newspapers, listening to the radio, or watching TV. That’s always been the case in my lifetime, and I would guess back to the days of Ben Franklin and Tom Paine… Talking about things being wrong in the country (and the world) gets people to pay attention, which is what the media want us to do. But the Internet has been a tool for accelerating the spread of baseless opinion, half-truths and outright lies, rants, flaming, trolling, and all the other unpleasant examples of online communication. Unfortunately, it’s also made it easier to simplify the complicated events of out time into simplistic narratives – wearying, yet strangely addictive drumbeats of anger, resentment, and blame.
Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, began his work on depression with the theory that it is anger turned inward that makes people depressed. Instead, he found that depression is marked by negative beliefs and thinking patterns. These fall into negative thinking about the self, the world, and the future. It’s easy to see how pundits, columnists, commenters and bloggers (present company excepted, of course!) are particularly well-equipped to spread negative thinking about the world and the future. As a Newsweek ad from the 1970’s asked, “Is society sliding down a greased chute to oblivion?”
You’d certainly think so from listening to talk radio, reading politically oriented websites, or reading the comments posted after almost every news story online. “Libtards,” “Conservatards,” “fascists,” “Socialists,” and other insults fly back and forth like fecal missiles, with little thought for what they say about the person hurling them. If posting on websites is like the modern equivalent of carving your initials on trees, many of these comments are like carving obscenities.
On the other hand, many blogs, columns, and comments left online are thoughtful, insightful, clever, and heartfelt. In fact, that’s what seems to egg on the “trolls” of the online world – the people who delight in leaving nasty comments and provoking anger and outrage. The admonition not to “feed the trolls” has become common. Still, it’s kind of refreshing to see ordinary people making sincere attempts to refute some of the more outrageous assertions made in these “troll” comments.
Some have even asserted that there are groups of people working for political organizations that recruit trolls for hire, to overwhelm discussion boards and comment sections of websites. They are counting on the idea that people tend to give more credence to assertions they hear or see repeated often. Social psychologists and marketers have been aware of this for years. But it’s dishonest to exploit it for political power. Most people can spot propaganda, but it’s harder to spot phony consensus, especially in a democracy where polls and surveys are used to “prove” social consensus. Consensus, after all, is the “will of the people,” and politicians always claim to know what “the American people want.”
How do we strengthen ourselves agains this corrosive process? How do we strengthen our innate will to strive to make things better, and fight discouragement?
- First, develop the skill of thinking critically. Don’t assume that an assertion is correct without checking it out. factcheck.org and snopes.com are good resources for checking the truth of rumors and myths about politicians, legislation, and the government website transparency.gov can tell where your tax dollars are really being spent. THOMAS, the Library of Congress website, gives a great deal of information about laws and bills that have been proposed (and by whom), and passed. Consider the agenda of the people who are making the assertion and check out who they answer to. Most of all, practice considering explanations that don’t fit your preconceived notions, It helps stretch your critican thinking faculties, even though it feels uncomfortable at first.
- Think of how we can work together instead of how we can take sides. There are huge challenges in the world, and it will take all of us thinking creatively and working on solutions, to bring us from our present state of crisis and change toward the creation of a better social fabric.
- As trite as it sounds, look for the good, Happy people are not necessarily the ones with the clearest view of events, but are often the ones who choose to focus on the things that are going well and try to do more of them. The saying about seeing the glass as half-full instead of half-empty is trite, but has value. Optimism means focusing on the things that can be built upon, rather than the things that need to be torn down.
- Be very careful about indulging anger too freely. Anger is addictive, and tends to lead us to distort reality to serve it. Anyone who’s had an argument with a spouse and finds themselves dredging up old or silly grievances just to feed the anger knows how this works.
- View other people as your allies, no matter what ethnic group, class, cultural background, or political party they support, what team they root for, or what church they belong to. Tribalism is as much a useless relic of our prehistoric ancestors as our appendix. We want to have a group to protect us. Whether it;s a clique in junior high school, a political party, or a nationalistic identity, we are drawn to tribalism the way we are drawn to sweet foods. To a certain extent, we have hard wiring that tells is both are desirable. But indulging in either, while it may have helped our early ancestors, will do us and our society damage. Even sports loyalties, as harmless as they may seem, can lead to violence – as we saw this year in California.
- View our fellow citizens as participants, not competitiors for scarce resources. Engage in altruistic acts. Think about being in the other person’s shoes. Contribute time, energy, or money to a good cause. Volunteer.
I’ll leave it at that, since my son has told me my blog posts are likely to provoke a “TLDR” reaction in people (Too lomg; didn’t read). So if you read this far, thanks.