America has an addiction problem. Although opioids monopolize the headlines, we humans are subject to numerous other addictions. I recently recognized one in myself.
It was not alcohol or drugs, it was not gambling or pornography, it was one of the oldest addictions of all. I discovered that I was becoming addicted to outrage.
I found myself coming home at night and turning on my favorite cable news channel to get my daily fix of outrage. It felt so good, so self-righteous, to belittle the “other side” and hear what ridiculous things they had done today. I discovered that it was much easier to become outraged than it was to have an intelligent discussion about an issue.
Complex issues, such as determining whether taxes should be higher or lower, or how we should deal with the surge in drug prices – well, that takes critical thinking. Critical thinking requires hard work, and is not nearly as emotionally rewarding as demonizing someone else.
It turns out that I am not alone. The media business, whether social or traditional media, has discovered that presenting controversy is profitable. Controversy, whether real or manufactured, sells advertising space.
Promoting outrage has become a constant news cycle. In fact, news cycles have now been described as “shock cycles.” One shocking news story leads to a shocking response, followed by another shocking response. We can become outraged by outrage itself.
Outrage is a normal emotion that has cultural advantages. Outrage is useful in group settings to combat bad behavior and prevent chaos. Outrage also stimulates pleasure centers in the brain. Outrage can reverberate within echo chambers and unify groups, but it frequently does so at the expense of critical thinking. We live in a complex world with complex problems, but outrage only furthers tribalism.
Many behaviors can potentially be addictive. Activities such as recreational gambling and drinking, when done in moderation, can be beneficial. But when any activity becomes all-consuming and detracts from other components in one's life, the behavior is considered addictive. The more addictive, the more it affects your life.
Mothers know this. They have long known that many behaviors, such as spreading gossip and rumor, can feel good at the time but can have devastating consequences. Mothers also taught us that bullying others ultimately diminishes us. Excluding others leads to our own isolation. We seem to have forgotten these childhood lessons.
Jennifer Weiner recently asked in a New York Times piece why it felt so good to see Donald Trump booed. At the fifth game of the World Series in Washington, D.C., Nationals fans greeted Trump with a chorus of “lock him up.” Presumably these fans felt just as righteous as Trump partisans do when they cheer “lock her up.” Bad behavior that feels good at the time only leads to more bad behavior. This bad behavior can feel so good that it can become addictive.
All addictions are harmful, but this addiction to outrage and the misinformation that sustains it is not healthy for us as individuals or for our democracy. Turning away from the outrage dealers on cable news will not be easy, but we must begin to try if we are to return to civility. I am reminded of an example of social change in Fort Wayne several years ago.
At the time, Komets fans took great delight in chanting “you suck” at opposing players. There had been criticism of this bad behavior, but the chants continued. Then a piece appeared from a Fort Wayne citizen. She pointed out that Komets fans should be free to be as obnoxious as they want to be, but what did the behavior say about their character? These fans must have been so insecure about themselves that they needed to belittle opposing hockey players. Remarkably, the chanting ceased almost overnight. She had reminded us of the need to respect others and acknowledge our own humility.
It is a lesson for today as well, and we must heed it if we are to break the addiction to shock cycles and return to civil debate.
William A. Argus is a practicing ophthalmologist in Fort Wayne.