Standing Up to the Outrage Machine

Some of the best advice I ever got as a journalist was from the movie The Wizard of Oz, when the man manipulating a false image of the Great and Powerful Oz notices that he is about to be exposed as a fraud. What does Oz command? “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

I always pay attention to whoever is trying to manipulate me or make me feel a certain way. Sometimes I did not witness these people doing their vile deeds. Most of the time I lacked the opportunity to expose them.

But I learned to free myself of their prejudices, and parse my truth from their fiction, by asking what they had to gain by making me angry with tales of how the rich, the powerful, the beautiful, the respected, or the merely admired, are behaving shamefully.

This said, I am not immune to the outrage machine. Our contemporary American culture of mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore has certainly given me, and just about everyone I know, a bad case of what Sopranos fans learned to call “agita,” a constant nervous anxiety that keeps us awake at night, distracts us from what really matters and interferes with our ability to enjoy our life. While we can find some satisfaction in agreeing with people on a social media page that we’ve never met and may not even exist (given the prevalence of insidious troll factories that invent false identities), that comfort comes with side effects: a lingering contempt for people, places and things that you believe you know, but really don’t.

That, and the sad fact that so much of the time we give to our agita could be used for playing with our kids, cooking a good meal, watching the sunset or hugging someone you love.

In saying this, I don’t want us to escape, ignore or turn away from the political, cultural, environmental and economic problems in our neighborhoods, our country and the world. A thriving, healthy democracy demands that we give these things our undivided attention.

But there is a difference between getting mad about it, and doing something that will make things better. We must ask, who gains when we are made to feel angry, especially when our rage prevents us from doing anything but becoming more angry until we are so alienated that we can barely endure our daily lives.

When we’re boiling over about the awful-thing-of-the-moment, it’s almost as if we never felt any other kind of emotion. In fact, just before we heard about this awful thing, we were thinking and feeling something different. Then, this thing pushed our button. Does it have to? Can we stand up, step back and understand the difference between what we’ve heard, and how we’re responding to it?

Most websites intended for public consumption have comment boxes. I confess that I have had an urge to add an equally sarcastic, snarky, righteously indignant remark to the list. Then I remember that most of those comments aren’t read by those who provided the content that pushed my button. Someone may skim responses, or use analytics to determine general trends, but that angry blurt won’t have any positive consequences.

Another good question to ask when the bile arises is where did this button-pushing content come from? Having worked for some very impressive, and very serious newspapers and magazines, I can assure you that media bias is not a simple matter of political preference. The biggest bias any media organization has is the need to attract and maintain your attention. What was once a necessity for selling advertisements has become worse: nowadays what is sold is an analysis of what visitors do on that website, as if that were only reality necessary in determining what it is to be human in the 21st Century. Is it possible that you may have better things to do than give your life to these people?

About those advertisements: notice how the website content tends to support the lifestyle the advertisements promote. What purpose do those ads have? To generate income for the website owner and, for the visitors? Manipulate our values and emotions to make us do something we would not normally do. We may believe we can ignore the ads and generate some kind of immunity to their siren song. Psychological research has proven that we can’t. Though we try to look away, hit the mute button or tell ourselves we’re smarter than whatever we’re being sold, the torrent of commercial information sinks in. It becomes part of our culture, alters how we make decisions and affects our moods, in way similar to that of contemporary reporting whose purpose is bait our emotions.

In large media organizations, teams of editors come up with the form and style of the content you see. They determine what you see and hear, even if these editors don’t know you, have no idea what your life is like and probably wouldn’t care if you met them and said, “Please, enoughof this. It’s ruining my day. Give me more of what will make my day.” Just because this stuff is important to an editor or the editor’s organization does not make it important to me. I’ve found that much of what passes for vital information ends up distracting me from what is crucial and valuable in my life, right now. By making me angry about things I can’t change, these editors burn up my energy and weaken my resolve for what I can change.

Have you ever noticed how fast news becomes old? Within a 48 hour news cycle, an event, announcement, occurrence or paradigm shift is chewed and digested until we’re bored, it ceases to trouble us, or something more attention-grabbing comes along. It dies even faster when contrasting observations come up, or when little details contradict what we thought was a simple truth. We give up trying to understand it because it’s so much easier to get mad at the next bad thing.

In truth, what is reported is always a reduction, a simplification of a very complicated moment. Some elements are emphasized or given more “play.” Others are left out (I can’t tell you how much of my reporting was cut and never appeared in print because the space for the article was suddenly shortened when the publication’s sales department sold another advertisement). Reporting is always a glimpse of something bigger.

But don’t call it “fake” if it doesn’t agree with what you assume you know. or if someone in authority dismisses it by attacking, deny or denigrating reporting or its source. Those with power use language to maintain that power, and one of their easiest tricks is to demean what they don’t like without offering new information, evidence or verifiable facts to back up their claims. Pay attention to those who hide behind a curtain of bluster or charm. Ask yourself what they have to gain when you get mad for them.

it’s time to take back the power over our emotional health. We must stand up to the cultural outrage machine in all its devious methods and manifestations, in a way that is intelligent, respectful, responsible and compassionate, so we can understand what we need to know, act on what we value and take time to savor our friends, loved ones and those quiet moments when we are truly ourselves .