Stop the Merry-Go-Round

As much as we depend on the news media to keep us in touch, we need to know how to avoid losing our bearings amidst the daily maelstrom of events. A healthy dose of skepticism and a variety of sources never hurt anyone.

It’s time I owned up. I am an addict and can now see it. What was once an occasional pleasure has become an insatiable need, creating erratic mental patterns and inducing emotional instability. Like all addictions, mine is taking a toll on my relationships, as I become ever more emotionally volatile, either arguing vociferously or withdrawing defensively. It isn’t healthy.

I’m addicted to the news. Yes, the news, i.e., the kaleidoscopic content of the myriad media which today infiltrate most aspects of our lives, whether we like it or not.

Not so long ago I was a quasi-teetotaller. I hardly ever read the news; didn’t miss it; didn’t really see the point. I relied on others to fill me in on high profile events. I was not only content to be a Luddite: I was proud to preserve the purity of my brainwaves from the chatter of the airwaves.

Then, circa 2015, certain friends and family members began sharing occasional journalistic tidbits about Donald Trump: here a column from the New York Times, there a report from the Washington Post. I take full responsibility for what happened next. I was so utterly gobsmacked by the surreal narrative of the Trump campaign (followed by presidency), that in no time I was reading news daily, then multiple times a day. One item would lead to another, then another, and so on. Soon I was reading and watching whatever I could, from the Guardian to CNN, Politico to the Huffington Post. I discovered late night comedy, and became acquainted with left-leaning political blogs I previously didn’t know existed.

I began to consume news in ever greater quantities and widening thematic swathes, always chasing that familiar rush of disbelief mixed with the adrenaline of disgust at the antics of Trump et al. It came to seem that most topics, no matter how catholic, led back to Trump and his fathomless stupidity and arrogance. I became competitive about remaining up to the minute on his latest outrages, and couldn’t abide hearing anything that jeopardised my belief that Donald Trump is the embodiment of everything that is worst about humankind.

I realised I had stumbled, in the single-mindedness of my intoxication, into what could only be described as a personal echo chamber — the litmus test for absence of balance. Like most people, I’ve tended to think of myself as an open-minded, relatively unbiased person. And yet, not only had I succumbed to the cacophony of liberal siren songs. I had to go a step further and admit that, beneath the superficial revulsion, I was experiencing a perverse satisfaction at each successive infamous act that reinforced my convictions about Trump.

Like all echo chambers worthy of the name, mine deflected all dissonant information, meanwhile admitting some downright doubtful material on the sole criterion that it made Trump look ever more odious and likely to be impeached. As a result, I came to view the planet’s innumerable crises as linked in a vast web, with Trump glowing orangely in its hub, like a predatory, anencephalic spider.

My wake up call to regain a measure of perspective came last week as I found myself gorging one morning on three tropical storms of previously unseen destructive power, plus the underground detonation of a thermonuclear device by North Korea, topped off by an 8.1 magnitude earthquake in Mexico which, it was suggested in initial media reports, might cause a tsunami. Whoa, I said to myself: Whoa. Time to get a grip.

I can’t carry on like this. No question, there are countless reasons for despair. No need to list them; we all know what they are. As a species we have arrived at the stage where we’re sinking under the weight of our sheer numbers and our inability to act in accordance with the laws of moderation. For all our rhetoric, we seem incapable of acting within a long term context. We scare ourselves daily with evidence of our boundless greed and self-destructiveness; then we carry on in our familiar behaviours, to which we are attached precisely because they are familiar and normalise the unacceptable.

How many times has the pendulum swung in my mind from, “All that remains is for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to come riding over the horizon” to “Maybe I’m just making too much of this. Let’s see what’s new on Netflix”? This see-saw isn’t productive. No problem is ever solved by repeating the actions that caused it. Nor by sinking into wretchedness and resignation.

I believe we have a duty to inform ourselves about what’s happening in the world. We’re mostly fortunate to have ready access to the global exchange of information; we have the media in its protean variety to thank in large part for this free and instantaneous flow. Humans have since time out of mind sought to be informed about events, an impulse driven by a mix of curiosity, voyeurism, self-interest and, let’s admit it, schadenfreude. We’re no different today: we’re simply freed from the constraint of waiting for a pilgrim, pony, or passenger pigeon to arrive with “tidings” from abroad.

At the same time, we need to hold ourselves to a standard of fairness as we select our information sources. Just as “free speech” doesn’t mean expressing every opinion out loud, being informed doesn’t mean confining ourselves to views that shore up what we already believe. Freedom of expression and freedom of conscience both require the application of personal judgment and self-discipline. Especially in an era when news is omnipresent and travels so fast, it’s essential to strive for balance in our knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with cultivating a healthy skepticism and, from time to time, deliberately stepping outside the echo chamber.

One fact you can rely on: The content of your echo chamber may make you feel better in a chaotic world, but it is also an oversimplification of the world. Good to keep in mind.