5 Ways To Stay Sane In An Era Of Non-Stop Outrage
You ever get so bored that you feel like you could kill 27 people and then mail their body parts to the police station?
Serial killers do. Get that bored, I mean. The whole deal with psychopaths is that their brains don't handle dopamine correctly. That's the chemical that makes you feel pleasure. They get so starved for stimulation that they keep trying crazier and crazier shit just to fight the boredom.
What does this have to do with 2017 America? Am I saying that Donald Trump is a serial killer? No, of course not.
Hey, you know what happens when you read something really enraging on the internet? You get a hit of dopamine. And even though it's a "bad" feeling, you immediately want to feel it again, because anything is better than being bored. Well, people who know how to manipulate this mechanism rule the world. Here's what you need to know now:
Ignore Headlines Telling You To Feel An Emotion
Here's my favorite bullshit headline format, and I apologize right now if we've ever used it:
It's the "should" that pisses me off. I get that 50 percent of internet headlines are promising to make me feel some kind of mindless, extreme emotion ...
... but saying their thing "should" terrify/enrage/outrage me implies that if I don't turn myself into a frightened, cornered animal, there's something wrong with me. That I've failed, somehow -- that I don't care enough.
"Are you terrified yet?"
"Well you should be."
"Well you should be fucking yourself. Why don't you go do that, you goddamned shrieking 3 a.m. car alarm of a human being?"
Enough. I'm exhausted. And here's the truth, anyway: My insomnia won't transport a single refugee to safety, and my stress vomit won't feed a single starving child. I can feel these endless hits of outrage frying the circuitry in my brain. If I don't have my phone in the same room with me, I panic.
Remember That People Literally Get Paid To Upset You
That's their only job. It's the only reason they say the things they say. They're not trying to change your mind or win your vote; they're only trying to ruin your day.
There are lots of these people in the world. The one who's getting the headlines at the moment I'm writing this is a guy named Milo Yiannopoulos. He's the "alt-right" media figure who in the last several months said things which got him banned from Twitter and booted from CPAC (a conservative conference attended by presidential candidates), lost him a massive book deal, and triggered a riot at a speaking engagement.
If you're wondering what he said to cause all of that, the answer is that it's the same shit that got him those opportunities in the first place. His job is to sit down every night and calculate what actions/statements/positions will upset the average reasonable person the most. It's how he puts food on the table. Sample Milo column titles:
He goes to college campuses and encourages audiences to "purge" their student body of undocumented immigrants and rants about the Jews in the media. The most recent thing is that he said adults should be allowed to molest 13-year-olds, or something like that. Look, it all blurs together. It's easier to give you his formula:
A) Find a group that has historically been abused, terrorized or marginalized
B) Attack them in the most sadistic way he can possibly think of
C) Trigger a protective reflex in every good bystander that will cause them to react
D) Profit from the free publicity
That's it. Yiannopoulos doesn't believe any of it. He's a guy from a Jewish family who stirs up hatred of Jews, an immigrant who rants against immigrants, a gay man who rants against gay rights. Years ago, he tried to get outrage traffic by insulting gamers, then Gamergate came along and he reinvented himself as their fierce defender, because he realized there was more outrage traffic in terrorizing female game developers. He's blindly yanking every fire alarm he can until he finally draws a big enough crowd.
"Coming Soon To The Store: Mil-Os! They're Cheerios, but uncucked!"
It's an unbeatable business model. Ignoring him (and denying him income) also means we're okay with him sending hate mobs after minorities, while paying attention to him puts money in his pocket. You wind up in the absurd position of having a moral obligation to support Milo Yiannopoulos's career.
But no, he's not trying to convince you. That's why he phrases his arguments in the most ridiculous, exaggerated, and inflammatory way possible, rather than trying to walk you through his position with any chain of reasoning. As for why he does it, well, what else is he going to do? He's a college dropout with no other skills; his ass isn't going to be out there perfecting cold fusion and shit. This is what keeps him of the streets. He doesn't have an agenda beyond getting eyeballs by selling you the outrage you're addicted to.
He's a dopamine dealer. If he goes down, another ten will replace him.
Know That If You Can Be Trolled, You Can Be Controlled
Oh, sure, people like Milo have fans -- they pay to see him, they'll follow him to whatever outlet he sets up next (which will come with lots of banners boasting how it's the dangerous truth the elites don't want you to hear).
But they don't necessarily believe what he's saying either. They, also simply like to see you get worked up. You think grown men are using words like "libtard" and "snowflake" because they think it'll win you to their side?
Trolls go around intentionally antagonizing people on the internet because it makes them feel powerful. Merely by typing some words, they are able to reach into your brain and change your mood, ruin your day. Like you're their puppet. That's power. The feeling of power is also a high (again, ask any serial killer), and the angrier the victims get, the better the high. Especially if the target is an arrogant, self-righteous, pearl-clutching, humorless bore with a stick up their ass.
I mean, it's not like radical conservatives like Milo (or Ann Coulter, or Rush Limbaugh, or the now-forgotten Morton Downey Jr.) invented this. When stuffy Christians complained about the evils of rock music, the other side knew exactly what to do: Pile on the faux Satanism!
Hell, Marilyn even looks like Bizzaro Milo on the cover.
Wherever you find someone who holds a thing sacred, you'll find others gleefully grinding their boot into it. If the powers that be call it sin, others will commit it right in front of their faces, as loudly and abrasively as possible. It was never about standing up for Satan -- who even believes in that shit? No, it was about rebellion, defying the elites, weaponizing every aspect of your personality to ruffle the feathers of self-satisfied aristocrats.
Well, in the minds of these modern trolls, the church has been replaced with a religion of hyper-aggressive multiculturalism, and bigotry is the only sin. So the Milos of the world do the metal album cover version of bigotry -- cartoonish, loud, intentionally abrasive. They see us as the stuffy, pearl-clutching church ladies pretending to be better than them. Pretending our shit doesn't stink. They'll show us!
It's a power play. The louder you denounce, the further they push the envelope. The harsher their punishments, the more street cred they get -- I remember a stretch where I wouldn't buy an album unless it had this on it:
Your reaction is all that matters, because they caused the reaction, and that means they matter. Lots of them only voted for Trump because he was the one who would upset you the most. And if some minorities and trans people get thrown under the bus along the way, so what? Standing up for those people is so boring.
Stomping on them creates excitement, it gets people goin'. And anything is better than the boredom.
Understand The "Firehose Of Falsehoods"
All of this brings us to the "Firehose of Falsehoods" propaganda model. This is a technique allegedly used effectively by Vladimir Putin's Russia, taking advantage of the internet and social media to overwhelm the populace with a machine gun spray of false news, inflammatory accusations, and conspiracy theories. It doesn't matter if the information conflicts, it doesn't matter if any of it is backed by reliable sources -- sheer volume is all it takes, because the average person has a limited capacity to sift through it.
Your brain is an organ, a physical mass of jelly that burns calories for energy. It can be overworked the same way that an athlete's muscles or your drunk uncle's liver can. Already, 90 percent or so of that energy is burned worrying about your sex life, job, bills, family, friends, pets, diet, leaky bathroom faucet, favorite sports team, and the fact that you still don't know who PewDiePie is and you're now afraid to ask.
"Is it a Pokemon?"
The "firehose" model recognizes that at some point, most people will give up.
Now, I personally don't think Donald Trump or his administration are carefully crafting some Putin-esque strategy. I think Trump tweets six times a day because he has no impulse control and can't let any perceived insult go unanswered. It doesn't matter whether or not it's intentional, though, because the effect is exactly the same. This is how he got into office in the first place -- he stuffed the information channels with bullshit so that nobody else could be heard. The media in 2017 is the perfect landscape for this.
The news treats every tweet as an official White House press release / policy statement, each one requiring a whirlwind of analysis, debunking, and snide replies from a hundred million citizens eager to fire back. Six shitstorms a day, on top of the normal flow of real news -- the executive orders, Cabinet appointments, legislation, etc.
... and then add the amplification process by which outlets compete with each other to see who can make their alarmism the loudest and most shrill ...
... until it's like that video in which they trick the two voice apps into screeching at each other:
If the firehose metaphor is accurate, don't picture Trump spraying bullshit on a panicked, unsuspecting crowd. Picture a thirsty crowd fighting to get to the hose to suck from the nozzle.
You Must Separate The Signal From The Noise
I'm writing this exactly one month after Trump took office. It's been a nonstop whirlwind of headlines and reaction, my social media channels full of terrified people afraid that they'll lose their healthcare, be deported, have their marriage nullified, or be incinerated in nuclear fire. What is most shocking, though, is that amid all of the noise, virtually nothing has actually occurred.
Some of you are so sure that last sentence is wrong that your reaction will be visceral anger. "Uh, have you even glanced at the news, pisslizard?"
Yes, I have. Our disagreement is in how I don't consider a Donald Trump tweet to be news. I think it's noise, a barking dog in the distance. I've decided to save my anxiety for when there's legitimate policy.
"But the president has signed 45 executive orders or memos in the last month alone!" Yep, and virtually none of them had any goddamned effect on anything whatsoever.
He wrote an order demanding a wall be built along the Mexican border, which is utterly meaningless. Only Congress can fund such a wall (that is, add to the existing fence we started building 11 years ago), and it's not clear whether they have any desire to. The order is nothing but a piece of paper. He might as well have said it, or tweeted it. Or done nothing at all.
He signed another order demanding a reversal of bank regulations, but again, executive orders can't undo regulations. That's not how they work. It was a piece of paper telling the secretary of the Treasury to review existing regulations at some point and maybe recommend changing them. This was, of course, sensibly reported by the press in a calm, evenhanded way ...
There were other orders about defeating ISIS and fighting crime that amount to nothing more that statements of general intent -- again, effectively tweets printed out on nice stationary.
The only substantive order, the one spelling out an immediate shift in policy, was the travel ban on immigrants from certain Muslim countries, which was swiftly struck down by the courts. I said you have to separate the signal from the noise. Well, that one was signal. There was action to be taken, congresspeople to call, groups to donate to.
If you want to stay sane over the next four years, if you want to be an effective citizen and not a confused housefly bouncing frantically against a closed window, you're going to have to figure this out. You'll have to separate the headlines/tweets/video clips that spur you to useful action from the ones you're consuming to feed an addiction that puts money in the pockets of reckless carnival barkers.
So, for reference, I think the following is noise:
At a Black History Month speech, Trump didn't seem to know who Frederick Douglass was. At a rally in Florida, he made a vague reference to a terrible event in Sweden that didn't occur (still, an entire news cycle was devoted to endless mockery of it). Sean Spicer accidentally called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau "Joe," and keeps saying the Orlando terror attack happened in Atlanta.
Each stumble triggers an avalanche of outrage headlines and a cloud of tweets feeding a hundred million "Can you believe these assholes?!?!" dopamine hits. And it all amounts to jack fucking shit. We get to feel superior and make our snide little comments, and the world is not impacted in any way.
B) Trump tweets.
Tweets are not legislation. They are not legally binding. This, in my opinion, is not news:
And I think this is plain insulting:
Guess what: Other world leaders know who Donald Trump is. They know this is the same Twitter account he once used to rant about how the stars of Twilight shouldn't continue dating.
"But those tweets offer insight into his crazy mind!" We know all about Trump's crazy mind at this point. You're not following it for news; you're following it for entertainment. You know how those tweets are going to make you feel, and you want to feel it.
C) Anti-Trump fake news.
Obama was the first president of the "Everybody gets their news from social media" era. This gave birth to a whole industry of outlets that dealt in fake Obama outrage stories. That's how we wound up with Breitbart, The Blaze, Gateway Pundit, and thousands more. In the Trump era, there is now an exploding market in fake anti-Trump outrage stories, and I'm shocked by how many smart people are quick to repeat them.
No, Trump supporters didn't burn down a black church in Mississippi (the culprit was apparently a member of the congregation staging it to look like a hate crime). No, an Iraqi woman didn't die because Trump's travel ban prevented her from getting to a hospital (her son later admitted he made it up). The January 12 Esquire headline "30 Million People Lost Their Healthcare in the Dead of Night" was accurate in the sense that a vote was held in the dead of night, but inaccurate in the number of people who lost their healthcare as a result (instead of 30 million, it was zero million).
They know you're addicted, so they feed your habit. Their product is "How Trump Ruined The World Today," and if Trump didn't happen to do anything that day, they have to make it up.
"Here is a worst possible outcome of a scenario that has yet to happen but could ... maybe ... it depends ..."
So in addition to the damage to your mental health and likely descent into nihilistic political apathy, there's the corruption of your Bullshit Detector. You will judge the value of stories not on whether they are true, but on whether they feed your addiction. Hell, how many of you reacted to the stories I linked above with something like "Well, that may not have happened, but lots of similar incidents probably did." You need the worst to be true. Nuance isn't going to get anybody high.
Well, after my railing against alarmism, let me be a little alarmist myself:
This is new.
The citizens of previous democracies did not have one tiny fraction of the information streams slamming into their brains. They didn't have smartphones they checked every 20 seconds in a desperate attempt to feel something. I personally believe that a certain percentage of Trump voters went with him just to see what would happen, to "shake things up" not in the political sense, but in the entertainment sense. Because, in other words, they were bored. "Did you hear the shit about how we should use our nukes? This dude's crazy as hell! If nothing else, you know he'll be entertaining!"
There is no playbook for managing this kind of sustained information overload because it has literally never happened before, ever. I, personally, don't think our brains are built to handle it. I think there is evidence that the need for constantly escalating stimulation is a sickness, one we're all vulnerable to.
And that should terrif- ah, fuck it.
David Wong is the Executive Editor at Cracked and his new book, WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST READ is available for pre-order now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, iBooks and Kobo. It's the next book in the NYT bestselling John Dies at the End series! Finally!
For more from David Wong, check out How Half Of America Lost Its F**king Mind and Why Smart People Support Trump (And Why They're Wrong).
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