Is avoiding the news a privilege?

Recently there was a moderately interesting story in the NY Times about a dude who decided after the US election of 2016 that he was going to create a life for himself so that he didn’t see or experience the news anymore. This was a decision he made because the news was making him depressed and apathetic. He is also an ex executive at Nike so presumably has some cash.

Of course, like everything these days, the response to this article has taken one small element that is unique and blown it out of proportion, to the point where the entire point is missed. Which is unfortunate, because the broader theme of the piece is worth considering. But most commonly this dude was slammed on Twitter, and people called him “selfish” and “privileged” in longer that 280 character responses. Someone who didn’t need to follow the news clearly was able to make that choice when others “couldn’t” – he didn’t understand what it was like to be impacted by some of the chaotic policy decisions made by the current US administration. He didn’t understand his own privilege. What a jerk for not reading the news every day.

A strange reaction. For me it raised other questions like – how is the news helping me? does staying in touch with the happenings of politics actually help me make a difference to anything? Does anything impact my life in an immediate sense? If everyone else is getting sick, is it your obligation to get sick too so that you “share” in their pain?

Following the news is a passive activity. You ingest, but do not have to act. Sure, there are some crazy issues that would have impacted people more than others, and as always race is involved. But very rarely does NYTimes.com or CNN change the way you can interact with the world. In some of those articles labelling this dude “selfish” is mentioned in conjunction with crack downs on illegal immigrants, an objectively terrible thing for anyone with a heart. But I don’t think you need to be in touch with the latest news to understand that America is a bad place to be as a recent immigrant, let alone an illegal one. It is very rare for there to be news examples that change someones life in that moment. Where if you were not on twitter keeping up with it then you would be in trouble. And for those few occasions where it does matter, isn’t it likely you would somehow find out anyway?

Most of the time, keeping in touch with the news encourages us feel emotions, like rage, at what is happening in the world. It is can be important to feel the emotion of terrible times. But these feelings are often a proxy for being involved. It’s an illusion. Feeling rage isn’t helping anyone. It isn’t helping the person who will be impacted by that terrible political decision. It isn’t helping change the politics. The only way it could help is if the rage turned to action. Is that how it impacts you?

You could effectively argue that Trump was only able to be elected because people became obsessed with the news, giving him an incredible amount of free coverage which was one of the many factors that helped push him over the line. Even worse, he clearly thrives on being in the news, and being talked about. The more you engage with his news, the more you fulfill his narcissism. The more you rage, the more he enjoys.

Of course – there is a balance. It is useful to stay updated with the broader happenings in the world (I think). The balance has to come with actually doing something that will help change the world we are so unhappy with. Too often these things are conflated. Consuming and knowing is not doing. I can tell you almost everything that happened in the 2016 election. So what? How did that help anyone? I would have made a better contribution to the world spending that time helping out my neighbour, or volunteering to a campaign, learning to build furniture, or probably meditating. At least then I would have the energy to do something now.

We shouldn’t all become this dude in Ohio living in an ignorant world. But we probably should consider what we do with our time (he sees his mum every week – do you?). We should consider how much news we need to ingest. And we should consider how we can best impact the world to stop the fascists, instead of unknowingly giving them what they want.

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