The presidential election has stunned and frightened many on the left; instilled sadness and fear in many members of the Latino, African American, Muslim, and LGBT communities; left the political center fatigued and depleted; and fanned resentments and anxieties on the political right. If ever there were a time when Americans needed to figure out how to deal with the potentially debilitating negative emotions that stem from political information, that time is right now.
The past year has brought a seemingly endless stream of graphic video footage from around the globe, including attacks by ISIS in Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and bombings in Paris and Brussels. In the U.S., it has witnessed coverage of mass shootings; raw footage of fatal police-civilian encounters; videos of hateful language and threats against religious and racial minorities.
But instead of people’s reactions to these incidents serving as a gateway to political life, making politics accessible and relatable, the misery is so overwhelming that many people are disengaging instead.
One day, while teaching my senior seminar at the University of Delaware, my class was discussing how empathy can engage citizens and reduce audience resistance. When we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we are invested in what they have to say and are less likely to dismiss it.
We discussed the tensions between the #BlackLivesMatter and the #AllLivesMatter movements, and worked together to identify arguments on both sides of this debate. Then, to illustrate how empathy can engage citizens and reduce audience resistance, I showed the class a recent video of a 9-year-old girl, Zianna Oliphant, tearfully addressing a Charlotte, North Carolina, city council meeting.
“It’s a shame that our fathers and mothers are killed and we can’t see them anymore,” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks. “It’s a shame that we have to go to their graveyard and bury them. And we have tears. We shouldn’t have tears. We need our fathers and mothers to be by our side.”
As soon as the clip ended I felt a stillness across the class. Awkwardly, I asked, “So, after watching this, how do you think empathy might operate in the heart and mind of someone who has opposed the #BlackLivesMatter movement?”
After a few seconds, a young woman in the back raised her hand.
“I was going to say something unrelated,” she hesitated, fidgeting with her pen. “I actually saw this video last night. I saw some of it. But, it made me feel so bad that I had to shut it off.”
My entire line of research is based on the assumption that emotions are a gateway to political engagement. So, you can imagine my conundrum when this young woman simply and honestly stated that her emotional response to this video had been so strong she had to shut it off.
Now, it’s not as though I didn’t know that such aversion to feelings of guilt, sadness, and anxiety existed. I’d even experienced it myself. In August, a video showed up in my newsfeed, of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh from Aleppo, sitting bloody and covered in ash, alone in an ambulance. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. So, yes, I recognized that negative emotions can cause people to tune out and shut down.
Through social media and digital technologies, not only do people learn about events, but they vicariously experience them. Through iReports and testimonials, through Facebook and Twitter posts from people at the forefront, Americans live every conflict and tragedy as though they are our own. Which should be beneficial from a democratic standpoint, if my hypothesis is correct: “People act when they feel,” I wrote.
But if feeling too much causes people to tune out, then this hypothesis must be wrong.
This realization on my part—that becoming overloaded by negative emotions may be dysfunctional—is old news in the world of media theory. In 1996, Rod Hart from the University of Texas argued that Americans expend so much energy watching the stuff of politics on the television that they feel too tired to take action themselves. “Television can be draining because it can be energizing,” wrote Hart. Robert Entman of George Washington University suggested in 1989 that television was creating a “democracy without citizens,” as viewers became spectators watching, rather than engaging in, political life.
All the way back in 1948 (when radio was still the medium of choice), the sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton warned of this debilitating effect. They described what they termed the “narcotizing dysfunction” of media, whereby people become so overwhelmed by information about news and current events that they become paralyzed by it. People would begin to “confuse knowing about an issue with doing something about it,” they wrote.
As with most media effects, part of this “narcotizing dysfunction” is rooted in our own evolutionary lag. Our brains have simply not yet caught up to the rapid growth in media technologies. Yes, we know we’re watching television or using the internet. But even when our rational minds understand that our mediated experiences are neither immediate nor real, our brains and our bodies treat them as real.
Yet another piece of this “narcotizing dysfunction” can be explained through a more “rational” process. When faced with feelings of guilt, fear, or anxiety, our brains have two options: They can find a way to take action to change or remove the source of the bad feeling, exerting external control, or they can change how—or if—we think about it, exerting internal control.
When faced with mediated tales of oppression, war, pain and suffering, we often feel very little external control. How can we solve the war in Syria? How can we end racism? It feels too big to fix, and so, lacking in avenues for external control, we choose to exercise internal control. And the easiest way to do this is by avoiding the subject from that moment forward.
Data indicate that the average person experiences only three traumatic events over the course of a lifetime. So, can people just tune out the mediated despair and only experience those traumatic events that actually belong to them?
Without media, our anxiety about the world would be largely determined by our real-world lived experiences instead of by the vicarious mediated experiences of others. Obviously, not everyone’s immediate experiences are the same. Class, race, and education predict real world exposure to crime, poverty, disease, and conflict. So, without broader exposure to current-events information, racial, educational, or economic backgrounds would play a larger role in creating each individual’s sense of the world than they otherwise might.
It is through media that the unafflicted and unburdened are able to pay witness to the experiences of people whose lives are more burdened by economic, political, social, or racial hardships.
This phenomenon was confirmed in George Gerbner’s research from the 1980s. Gerbner and his colleagues found that among people with very little exposure to television, income and race were the strongest predictors of fear of crime. African Americans who didn’t watch a lot of TV were significantly more afraid of crime than whites who didn’t watch a lot of TV. The same trend appeared when looking at low and high income levels. Which makes sense. Race and class are tied up in sociological and geographic variables that make real-world exposure to crime highest among minorities and those from lower income groups.
What Gerbner found among heavy television viewers, however, illustrated a “mainstreaming” effect on people across economic, racial, and geographic categories. Heavy TV viewers, at all income levels and all races, reported high fear of crime. Gerbner dubbed this phenomenon the “mean world syndrome,” as television caused people to view the world as a mean and dangerous place. But, what’s particularly interesting is that the largest “mean world” effects were among those citizens whose real lives were startlingly crime-free.
Television complicated their otherwise untroubled and privileged realities.
When Gerbner was conducting this research in the 1980s, most Americans got their news from daily newspapers or network news programs. The elite news gatekeepers determined what the public ought to hear. But today’s digital technologies never end. Nor are they controlled by journalists or professionals. Instead, they are the tools of the unruly, emotional masses. Which is why digital technologies can be engaging, and emotional, and democratizing. Digital technologies allow Americans to immerse themselves in events and move them far beyond what television news or newspapers ever could.
My concern now is that this constant, intimate, emotionally-charged visual content could fuel those “internal control” behaviors that cause us to want to avoid the things that make us feel bad in the first place. If we are feeling such profound fear, anxiety, or guilt and cannot wrap our heads around what to do to fix the problems, we are almost guaranteed to tune out as a way of protecting ourselves, rather than taking action.
And while this might protect individuals from their own negative emotions, it will not serve to protect those whose lives are directly affected by the issue or crisis at hand. In fact, if the people who have the luxury of tuning out do just that, it will only serve to deepen those divides between the haves and have-nots—between people of different races, from different income groups, and with different education levels. And this chasm won’t just deepen within the U.S., but around the globe as well.
Perhaps the real risk is that when people become overwhelmed by stories of pain and trauma they begin to lose hope. Without hope, they are unable to take action to create change. Without hope, people seek to avoid the thing making them feel bad in the first place, rather than seeking to change it. So, they protect themselves by turning away.
To have hope in the face of widespread pain or suffering means staying aware of the world, but simultaneously working towards the creation of something better. That might mean identifying avenues of agency to affect the particular issue, crisis, or event, perhaps through letter writing, charity, prayer, political discussion, organization or activism. Alternatively, it might produce a broader effort to improve the world, aimed toward the pursuit of kindness, compassion, generosity, justice, prayer, laughter, purpose, or art.
So, in the end, is it acceptable to shut off bad news to avoid feeling anxious or sad?
A year ago, I would have said no. Now, I say yes. It’s fine. If shutting it off now leaves you with the energy to act tomorrow, it’s definitely ok. Of course, it’s equally acceptable to feel sad and angry—as long as you maintain the presence of mind to translate that empathy into agency. But drowning in mediated despair risks the illusion that somehow, broken-heartedness helps create peace and justice in the world. It won’t—only action can do that.
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