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How the News and Politics Is Destroying Your Soul (And What You Can Do About It)

July 20, 2020


We live in a strange age. It’s an age marked by contention, strife, and factionalism. This is true in the Church and in the realm of politics (both in the US and in many other countries). To take just one example, here’s some objective evidence on the terrifying and widening political chasm in America:

The shares of Republicans and Democrats who express very unfavorable opinions of the opposing party have increased dramatically since the 1990s, but have changed little in recent years. Currently, 44% of Democrats and Democratic leaners have a very unfavorable opinion of the GOP, based on yearly averages of Pew Research Center surveys; 45% of Republicans and Republican leaners view the Democratic Party very unfavorably. In 1994, fewer than 20% in both parties viewed the opposing party very unfavorably.

This particular point is salient because it’s not just that we disagree. It’s that we don’t trust “the other side,” and actually hate each other to a degree not seen in modern US history. And American Catholicism hasn’t been exempted from this trend, either. You’ve got uncharitable pro-Francis and anti-Francis Catholics bashing each other, and uncharitable pro-Trump and anti-Trump Catholics bashing each other. So what’s going on, and what can we do about it? Here’s what Neil Postman, C.S. Lewis, and St. Paul might say about where we’ve gone wrong, and what we can individually do about it.

I. The Outrage Addiction Industry You May Not Know About

One problem with food might be that it’s mislabeled—this was a problem in much of the early twentieth century. But another problem is just that the food itself is unhealthy junk that makes your life worse when you consume too much of it. The news is the same way. There is fake news, the reporting of things that literally didn’t happen. But a much bigger problem is junk news, news that exists only to entertain and that actually makes us worse people when we consume too much of it.

Part of the reason for that is our addiction to outrage. Way back in 2015, Psychology Today had a post warning about that “anger is a public epidemic in America.” The author explained why anger is addictive:

What happens is that anger can lead to similar “rushes” as thrill-seeking activities where danger triggers dopamine reward receptors in the brain, or like other forms of addiction such as gambling, extreme sports, even drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines. Anger can become its own reward, but like other addictions, the final consequences are dangerous and real, and people follow impulses in the moment without regard to the big picture.

Two of the biggest drug-dealers in this new landscape are the news media and digital social media platforms.

Recall that twenty-four-hour news is a relatively recent phenomenon. It didn’t exist in the past because there was no need for it. Ordinary people didn’t (and don’t!) have to know about every possible scandal or controversy or outrage. Indeed, the desire to know everything just for the sake of it (or for the sake of feeding your outrage addiction) is a sin that used to be something that we warned against. Catholic theologians like Aquinas describes the vice of curiositas, an unhealthy curiosity that’s not motivated out of a sincere love for the truth. He cites St. Augustine, who warns,

Some there are who forsaking virtue, and ignorant of what God is, and of the majesty of that nature which ever remains the same, imagine they are doing something great, if with surpassing curiosity and keenness they explore the whole mass of this body which we call the world. So great a pride is thus begotten, that one would think they dwelt in the very heavens about which they argue.

This problem isn’t a new one. Originally, it made sense to stay on top of the news of the day, because it was directly relevant to your daily life: weather reports for farmers, local goings-on around town, etc. But with the introduction of the telegraph and photograph in the late nineteenth century, we could suddenly read about—and even see—events having no relation to our lives in any way. This began a subtle shift from the news as useful to the news as entertaining. In his 1985 masterpiece Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman traces the history by looking at, of all things, the crossword puzzle:

The crossword puzzle became a popular form of diversion in America at just that point when the telegraph and the photograph had achieved the transformation of news from functional information to decontextualized fact. This coincidence suggests that the new technologies had turned the age-old problem of information on its head: Where people once sought information to manage the real context of their lives, now they had to invent context in which otherwise useless information might be put to some apparent use. The crossword puzzle is one such pseudo-context; the cocktail party is another; the radio quiz shows of the 1930’s and 1940’s and the modern television game show are still others; and the ultimate, perhaps, is the wildly successful “Trivial Pursuit.” In one form or another, each of these supplies an answer to the question, “What am I to do with all these disconnected facts?” And in one form or another, the answer is the same: Why not use them for diversion? for entertainment? to amuse yourself, in a game?

As Postman shows, this trend from news as important to news as entertaining trivia isn’t a new one, but it’s been amplified by the introduction of video, by the creation of twenty-four-hour news networks, and by the invention of digital media platforms like Twitter and Facebook and of political news websites.

And the successful players in this industry make a fortune by manipulating you emotionally, and by making you angry on purpose. In a piece cleverly entitled YOU’LL BE OUTRAGED AT HOW EASY IT WAS TO GET YOU TO CLICK ON THIS HEADLINE, Wired looked at some of the science behind “clickbait.” Here’s what they found:

Emotional arousal, or the degree of physical response you have to an emotion, is a key ingredient in clicking behaviors. Sadness and anger, for example, are negative emotions, but anger is much more potent. “It drives us, fires us up, and compels us to take action,” Berger says. If you’ve ever found yourself falling for outrage clickbait or spent time hate-reading and hate-watching something, you know what Berger is talking about. “Anger, anxiety, humor, excitement, inspiration, surprise—all of these are punchy emotions that clickbait headlines rely on,” he says.

A growing body of research supports this idea. In a recent paper called “Breaking the News: First Impressions Matter On Online News,” two researchers looked at 69,907 headlines produced by four international media outlets in 2014. After analyzing the sentiment polarity of these headlines (whether the primary emotion conveyed was positive, negative, or neutral), they found “an extreme sentiment score obtained the largest mean popularity.” This not only suggests that strongly negative or strongly positive news tends to attract more readers, they concluded, but also that “a headline has more chance to [receive clicks] if the sentiment expressed in its text is extreme, towards the positive or the negative side.”

This is the point to which we’ve come. The news isn’t there to tell you pertinent information about your life. It’s there so that you see something that make you angry enough to click on it, because then the news site can charge advertisers for the time you spent viewing the page. It’s appealing to your baser emotions, and manipulating you in ways you may not even realize. It’s hardly an exaggeration to describe it as “outrage porn,” because the psychological manipulation is basically the same as what successful porn sites do in tapping into lust.

The solution to all of this, fortunately, is easy (at least in theory). Put down the remote, click the little X in the top-right corner, and walk away from the screen. (Or at least, spend all your time on Shameless Popery ?.) Try taking a week-long news fast (including Facebook, or whatever your particular triggers are), and then see how you did, and how you feel. Chances are, you won’t have missed anything you really needed.

II. Resisting The Demonic Assault

Outrage addiction is closely tied to the rise of partisanship, and the loss of trust between the two parties. It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s the way it’s been. On most issues (racial, economic, religious, etc.) we haven’t seen much movement in the last few years, or we’ve seen movement in positive directions in terms of people coming together. But in politics, we’ve seen the chasm getting wider and wider and the level of trust getting lower and lower. So outrage porn both benefits from this (if you hate the other side, you’re more likely to want to read about what nasty, rotten sorts they all are) and amplifies this (once you read about what nasty rotten sorts they are, you trust them even less, and the cycle continues).

I’m partway through C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters right now, and I’ve got to say that he has our number. The letters are written from the perspective of one demon (Screwtape) counseling another (Wormwood, the namesake for the teacher in Calvin and Hobbes) on how to destroy a man’s soul. So here is how the spiritual situation looks, unmasked:

All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them. . . . Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause,” in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing.

At the time Lewis was writing, World War II was going on, and there were strong cases (from the Gospel!) being made by British Christians for both pacifism and for serving in combat. But the point wasn’t which side’s case was better. It’s that both sides conducted themselves in a way that ultimately subverted Jesus Christ to a mere means of settling domestic British policy. We can do the same thing now with any of the major debates going on in America (or wherever and whenever you’re reading this).

I’ve watched this happen all around me, and I think it’s tearing the online Catholic world apart. What started with a debate over whether voting for or against President Trump was the proper Catholic response has metastasized into something much bigger, in which once-reputable Catholic writers and apologists on both sides are known now not for their nuanced defenses of the Gospel, but for their political flame-throwing.

The solution to this is the one that Screwtape warns against: an attitude “in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience,” and the world is recognized as a temporary, passing thing, as sort of means to heaven rather than the other way around.

III. Check The Fruits

Finally, we need to do a better job of checking the spiritual fruits of our actions. Here’s what I mean. St. Paul gives us two helpful diagnostics in Gal. 5:19-24, when he says:

Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

So it’s worth exploring two questions: How do the people I follow speak and act? Are they doing it with enmity and anger? Or are they marked by a spirit of joy, peace, and patience? And even more importantly, what am I like after I read or watch their stuff? Does it fill me with love and a spirit of kindness? Or do I have the hallmarks of outrage addiction and the works of the flesh? Really explore that question in prayer if you need to, and then be open to whatever God’s calling you to—even if it means a total change in your media diet.