Staying Sane (and Engaged!) in the Age of Trump
Like most folks, the result of the 2016 election and the subsequent residual chaos it left in its wake is a source of daily weariness for me. I wake up to a push notification on my phone and stare in bleary-eyed disbelief at what insane thing just happened. I check my Facebook — once the source of baby photos and funny animal memes — only to find videos that autoplay a massacre in Syria or a cable news pundit’s unwanted pontification, I’m barraged by headlines from disreputable clickbait sites that implore me to Check out How Senator So&So TOTALLY OWNS TRUMP OFFICIAL or that I Must See Racist Elected Official Says Racist Thing (I mean, must I see that? Must I?)
A five-minute scroll down the newsfeed becomes exhausting quick.
But I’m here to offer you a way to both consume what’s important, stay engaged and also preserve your emotional well-being. It’ll take a few easily made adjustments to your consumption of social media and news, but I can promise both an increase in the quality of information you get and a higher return on investment for the civic action you take.
Let’s start with how you get your news.
First, completely cut out all cable news. Turn it off. Avoid it. Walk out of the room when someone is watching it and don’t watch clips of pundits saying things — whether they’re someone you agree with or not. There is little to no value in the information presented in the cable news format. If the news is happening live, the information you get is often incorrect and exaggerated and designed to provoke fear and/or anger in you. Very rarely are the people being paid to talk experts in what they’re talking about. And if the event being reported is not happening at the moment, if its not “Breaking News,” then they’re not saying anything worth hearing anyway. Better to read it later. Turn that shit off. For those of you who are news junkies, this will take some adjustment. After all, we’re used to a culture that demands we have ready-made opinions and responses to anything and everything happening. But that’s not only unhealthy, it lends itself to a poisoned democracy where we’re pre-sorted into groups that have already decided how they’re going to react to a thing that hasn’t even finished happening yet. Resist that. You’ll be better informed by waiting an hour to read about what exactly is going on and you’ll be emotionally healthier for it.
Thus, in order to get your news, subscribe (yes, to get news worth reading, you have to pay for it) to the Washington Post or the New York Times. If you’re ambitious, throw in the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic for good measure (I’ll also make a brief pitch for you to subscribe to your local paper as well). What you’ll want to do is wake up in the morning and read. Let the news be what wakes up your brain. Skip the opinion section. Yes, we often find that the most gratifying way to digest information is that its been predetermined how we ought to process it, but challenge yourself to process independent a lens. You may reach a different conclusion than Kristoff or Brooks or Sargent, but good for you! That’s important. That’s healthy. That’s the kind of critical thinking that’s going to sharpen you in every other part of your life.
And here’s another tip — change the push notifications on your phone so only one of those sources is going to ding you with Breaking News alerts. Trust that if it’s important enough to disrupt the routine of your day, that the Times or the Post will hit you up accordingly. Don’t let yourself be bombarded by several news sources constantly sending you notifications. Pick one. Trust it. And read whatever they send at your leisure.
Next up is Facebook, which has become a morass of angry commentary, false and exaggerated news headlines and video content designed to snag your attention by inflaming your passion as quickly and as violently as possible. It’s frighteningly unhealthy. But you don’t have to quit altogether and you don’t have to unfriend folks with whom you disagree. Instead, actively curate your newsfeed. First, “unlike” anything that isn’t a primary news source (I would even recommend limiting it to those mentioned above). Be sure that the places you’re getting your information are the primary sources of that reporting. Second, when you see a post that’s clearly clickbait — a re-report of a news story reframed to appeal to a specific ideological group — go to the little arrow in to top right corner of the post, drag down the menu and click on “Hide Post”, which will adjust your algorithm to see fewer posts from that site and sites like that (I especially recommend doing this with posts that feature autoplay videos as that content is nearly always garbage). Again, trust that if news is worth knowing, you’ll get that push notification. If there are folks in your life who are especially bad purveyors of this, you can “unfollow” rather than “unfriend” them, but usually curating the posts themselves will be enough to limit your exposure.
And by the way, if you really miss all those pundits and cable news personalities, here’s my recommendation: follow them on Twitter. Twitter is the ideal medium in which to engage thinkers and opinion folks as you can quickly and painlessly see what people you align with think and move on. Personally, I recommend populating your feed with a broad-range of folks from across the spectrum, but I’m not going to tell you how to live your life. You do you, boo.
Okay, have you done everything above? Are you sane and balanced and feeling energized and ready to fight the good fight again? Great. Here are some simple ways to use your time to engage in a positive, impactful way…
First, sign up for Swing Left. You can read about what they do here, but essentially they’re going to help direct your energy in the best way possible. If you’ve already signed up, then go on Facebook and invite your friends and family to sign up. Write posts about it. Send emails. Get as many folks in your life as possible to join.
Did you do that? Awesome. Next up, check out Indivisible Guide and find a local group near you. And just like you did with Swing Left, invite your friends and family to do the same (if you literally just invited them to join Swing Left, then give it a week or two before you invite them to join Indivisible. You don’t want to get annoying, after all).
Okay, you did all that? Still want to find a way to be regularly involved? Here’s what I do…
Every week, I pick an action item. It’s always one of the following two things…
1. I make a small donation (even as little as $5) to a campaign, cause or organization I care about. If that sounds like a lot, think about something you spend $5 each week that you could give up in exchange. Hey, if you can’t give up that $5, don’t. This isn’t about making your life more difficult, but then definitely make space for #2. Make a call to your elected representatives. If you want to know why I make a phone call as opposed to sending an email or writing on their Facebook pages, check out this. And look, I know picking up the phone every week to call a person you don’t know can be weird, but civic engagement is weird at first and then it becomes natural. No, it doesn’t feel as good as venting on social media, but guess what? Social change isn’t about making you feel better — its about making the world better and that’s hard. And just think, you’ve freed up all that psychic energy thanks to the tips above! You got this! If you want more information on how to get started and where to find the information for your representatives, take a deep breath and start here. It’s easy.
And now I’ll challenge you further: each month, make one of your weekends a civic action weekend. Using Indivisible Guide, find voter registration drives, host small neighborhood fundraisers and get-togethers, sign up with your local Democrats and volunteer to help them organize. If there’s a ballot initiative you care about, go collect signatures. If there’s a candidate you believe passionately in, host a party to raise money. Be creative. Find ways to build actual coalitions of real people to make a difference.
Here’s the problem with our current culture of news consumption and digestion: it posits that our opinions — which we’re programmed to have before we independently form them thanks to the nature of how we receive information — validate us. As we post, we’re given a sense by the platform on which we share that the act of sharing in and of itself is meaningful. That we’ve done something good by virtue of sharing. You ever get involved in a fight on social media and come away feeling tired? The use of that energy tells your brain you’ve engaged in real debate. But you haven’t. It’s a mimicry of debate, but one that taxes us as if we’d engaged in real debate. One can’t possibly hope to truly engage a person when the platform on which they’re being engaged affirms the very worldview you’re hoping to shift. Social networks not only connect people, they harden the tribal impulses that simultaneously strengthen groups and otherize non-members.
But it’s on us to change that and we can start by changing ourselves. Rather than wear ourselves out debating Twitter trolls, we can elect to disengage and read the Washington Post. Instead of fuming at how stupid people in Ohio must be while Rachel Maddow again goes down the Trump / Russia rabbit hole, we can be putting a call in to congress to ask that they don’t strip healthcare from 24 million Americans. Yes, you could watch Sean Hannity get totally pwn’d by Elizabeth Warren in their epic bombshell showdown, or you could get that reluctant cousin of yours in Florida to finally register to vote.
Even in 2017, the sane option can be the more effective insofar as we demand it, not just of ourselves, but of each other. Sure, we’re going to have to work a little harder and leave our comfort zones, but I think saving the world is worth it, don’t you?