In an effort not to be constantly angry
I don't read the news
Being mad about everything all the time is a hallmark of both political parties. Rage is everyone’s calling card. “Political discourse” has descended to a level of insult theater that is so juvenile it’s embarrassing to watch (thanks, Trump!).
Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, it’s virtuous to stay angry. If you care about America, you’re supposed to hate everyone, everywhere, especially those who vote differently from yourself. If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.
A common refrain on the left is that it is a privilege to not care about politics. Among progressives, everything—the clothes you wear, the home you own, the car you buy, the religion you profess—is political. And you should probably be mad about it. You should stay mad that America is not the utopia we were promised. As the sentiment goes, if you don’t stay mad, nothing will change.
I understand the origin of this argument. Policy decisions affect the marketplace, zoning, manufacturing, and education. Of course they do. But this insistence seems to ignore actual agency. I have very little to do with those decisions, aside from the votes I cast each year.
The rest of the year, I can’t afford to live in a suspended state of rage. I have things to do. I have children to feed and a house to keep and a garden to tend. Rage is not productive. Constantly checking the news is not productive. Social media is not productive. It just makes my daily life more miserable. Stress-posting and self-righteous meme-swapping on Instagram do not profit anyone. They do not heal injustices. They do not stop wars. They do not affect policy decisions.
To stay angry profits only the party machines, which are increasingly impotent, and the algorithms, which control more and more of our waking lives with every passing day. The party machines want us to stay angry; it’s how we’ll feel compelled enough to vote. The algorithms also want us to stay angry; it’s how we’ll stay logged in, 24/7, without ever coming up for air.
Despite these enticements, I remain doubtful that a constant state of political rage motivates much meaningful action.
Posting as “action” is often the motivation of those who are regularly broadcasting political rage. It’s seen as a sociopolitical obligation to post your anger, to make public statements (as if you were, yourself, running for office), to perpetually lament the state of the world. If you stop posting your rage, it must mean you don’t care anymore. You can never stop.
Meta is, of course, very happy about this belief. Never log off. Never put it down. Never stop sharing your anger.
The internet has made us believe that our sphere of influence is much larger than it is. Because I can post these words on the World Wide Web, surely I must wield some power. Surely I must be able to affect the destinies of nation-states with my righteous anger. Surely I will be able to change Joe Biden’s decaying mind with this sassy post.
A component of this moral obligation, especially on the left, is that you must stay informed. By this, it is typically meant that you must read a constant ticker-tape of terrifying headlines. And just the headlines, mind you—being “informed” very rarely means reading the actual full text of the news stories, because who has that kind of time? You need to be back online and sharing it within a second of seeing it! If you hesitate, it must mean you don’t care!
When I consume too much news, I suffer. I grow anxious and snappish. I feel as if I ought to do something about things over which I have absolutely no control. My daily life is worse, in a noticeable and measurable way, if I follow the dictates of the political parties and endeavor to stay angry, sad, and scared all the time.
This temptation to news-spiral became very clear to me during the pandemic. I felt like if I read the bad news often and checked the case counts in my county daily, I could control some part of Covid’s influence on our lives. Turns out I couldn’t, and this habit only made me incredibly sad and stressed. (It was so acute that my perceptive boss could tell, from my mood, whether I had been reading the news that day. After I’d toss out some cynical comment about an unrelated issue, he’d say, “You were reading Covid reports this morning, weren’t you?”)
In giving up the news, I have found a measure of contentment.
As someone who studied journalism in college and worked in a newspaper and then later as a copy editor, I have an abiding fondness for the news media. I believe in the old American archetype of the heroic journalist, exposing corruption and holding the powerful accountable through meticulous reporting. I cherish the democratic foundations of a free press.
But the internet has changed the news—and us—perhaps forever. We know this in our hearts, those of us old enough to remember journalism before the 24-hour news cycle ran in our pockets. Entire books have been written about this subject, so I won’t go too far, but the algorithms have ensured that we’ve lost a great deal of trust in media as an institution. Today, journalism does not value in-depth reporting, because we, the readers, no longer value in-depth reporting. It’s about getting attention, by any means necessary. Competing with the noxious churn of TikTok, American journalism descends farther and farther into a morass of partisan grandstanding, which—unsurprisingly—traffics in rage.
Rage gets clicks. Keeping readers mad is immensely profitable.
University of Pennsylvania professors Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman found that “content that evokes high-arousal positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions is more viral” (source). Reviewing the New York Times most-emailed list, content that induced feelings of anger and anxiety were much more likely to make the list.
In an effort to achieve mental peace, I, a proud former journalist, don’t read the news anymore. I read many books instead. I sometimes read a topical essay or piece of long-form reporting. But this is rare. As a consequence, my husband is frequently shocked by how uninformed I am. He is instead my personal news filter; Guion tells me, at breakfast, about things that are happening. But for the most part, I have no idea what’s going on, and I am very happy about it.
The Books of Jacob, Olga Tokarczuk
Diastasis Recti, Katy Bowman
Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, Claire Dederer