Season of the Wolf
When you see the wolf in the periphery there arrives an overwhelming surge of panic, a sudden re-framing of reality in which one does not have control. This is often accompanied by heart palpitations, trembling, dry mouth, deep-seated dread to the point of nausea, and even sweating and sudden sensations of stifling heat or numbing cold. Fawn response steeps the brain in norepinephrine, leaves the neural pathways soaking in it as an amalgam formation of pinpoint lightning bolts coalesce into a final reaction. Sometimes this reaction manifests in fight and sometimes it is flight. This is how the brain reacts when there is a wolf in the room. This is acute anxiety, the overbearing sense that one is in danger.
There is a bad moon rising. According to a Nuffield Foundation study of young people, anxiety symptoms have doubled in the last 30 years. One in fifteen for young men and one in five for young women are the new statistics. A number of data points have been used to explain this rise into our present panicked fever dream. The youth labor market has collapsed: youth full time employment has dropped by half down to 20%. The study also points to the increase of vocational and non-structured education and makes the startling claim that 25-35% of young people are engaged in educational courses which provide little to no perceptible value to their station in life. [Why am I doing this? Where will this lead? Are they wasting my time? Why don’t I care about this? Should I care about this? What is wrong with me?] The wolf looms large.
Timi Gustafson writes in an article on the rise of anxiety that the recent trends tend to be somewhat market neutral as well. She quotes Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University, who says: “Anxiety rates have risen steadily over the past seven decades, during good economic times and bad.” Twenge also points to: “The deep cultural shifts we as a society have undergone since the 1960s.” Time does seem to come at us more swiftly in the modern age. Is this why life appears to breath down our necks urgently? Maybe so, but I think the problems may stem from technology just as much, specifically the way technology has altered how we intake media and the amount of media, specifically news media, there is to consume.
Let us go down a brief scenic byway for context. One of the greatest concerns in our modern age is environment: how we may be negatively affecting the habitat of the world’s creatures. There is an obsession with stasis and keeping things on an even keel. There is an aversion to change, fluctuation, anything that could throw an animal’s life process off balance. When it comes to the human animal, however, there appears to be a gross negligence toward balancing and carefully observing our environment. New technology flies from the lab to the factory and onto shelves as fast as possible to give the masses what they want. Smart phones rose into pervasiveness in a span of five years give or take. Only now are people showing some concern that attachment and obsession with these devices can be harmful to the mind and social structures of the human being. Would we toss some new piece of technology into a penguin habitat and just see what happens? Of course not. So why is there so little concern about how wildly and swiftly we alter the human habitat? What if a google newsfeed is just as harmful to people as an oil spill is to the Alaskan wildlife? Have we honestly considered the ramifications? The answer is unequivocally: no.
What Hath We Wrought?
I think that the ever-available news cycle with minute by minute coverage is having the effect of increasing our anxiety levels. Don’t just take my word for it. Ray Williams wrote an article in Psychology Today last year which tackles that very subject. Williams cites economist Paul Solmon on the topic:
Paul Solmon did an interesting piece on the cascading effect that consumer pessimism has on our willingness to spend. He said that we are in a state of “learned helplessness”. At the worst, continual bad news can even stimulate a state of depression, and people who concentrate on all the bad news work themselves up emotionally and become much more likely to make unwise decisions
His reasoning for this is that our bodies react to tangible and intangible threats in the same way:
Humans seek out news of dramatic, negative events. These experts say that our brains evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment where anything novel or dramatic had to be attended to immediately for survival. So while we no longer defend ourselves against saber-toothed tigers, our brains have not caught up.
This serves to prove my earlier point about the human environment and our general carelessness in regards to introducing new forms of media into our societies with a break-neck and reckless abandon.
Ray Williams is not alone in his concern. In an April 2013 article in The Guardian Rolf Dobelli points out a number of these potential hazards of new media technology, specifically the news. He writes:
Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.
This is not all. He goes on to describe the physiological effects of the news on the human body:
Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections.
The news can be that wolf in the periphery. In fact, it often is.
A New York Magazine article from last year by Jesse Singal makes some apt observations as well. She says:
That’s how it feels, at least, to those of us who sit at a blessed remove from the death and destruction, but who are watching every bloody moment of it via cable news and social media. It raises an important question: In an age when we can mainline bad news 24/7 if we so choose, what’s the psychological impact of all this exposure to tragedy at a distance?
It is a good question, one that not many people are asking, especially when it comes to bad environments for the human animal. She even goes on to question whether the reaction to all the bad news is only in the mind. If we behave as though a wolf is stalking us, then the results will be the same. Perception becomes reality:
But history — even recent history — is rife with examples of society making bad choices because of pessimistic hysteria. One can make a convincing case that belief in the now-debunked notion of “superpredators” contributed to the rise of draconian sentencing laws, for example, or that the recent spate of parents being arrested for letting their children play unsupervised stems from the false but persistent idea, blown up by coverage of high-profile kidnapping cases, that the world is crawling with kid-snatching strangers.
She makes a convincing point. What is the mechanism though? There are decent people in the world, and most people have no connection or reference point with the endless list of tragedy they read of at the end of the work day while they sit down with their family or friends. So why do these narratives persist?
Online media outlets certainly help. Scroll down any news feed and it will be populated with wars, genocides and rumors of war and genocide. An example of a common story: A toddler shoots his brother in rural America. Maybe a few dozen people actually heard the shot, but millions will read about it. Perhaps a hundred or so will attend the funeral, but most of the nation will be looking at the child’s impish smiles taken from a family photo album and swaying their heads grimly at the water cooler. One very bad day in small town America has cast a shadow over all 50 states. Click on the article and read the comments. You know you want to. Rows of condolences broken up by calls for legislation and futile demands to know where the parents were at the time flow by in an endless river of fruitless expulsion. Comment lists sometimes span into the thousands. You don’t need an example. You know you don’t, but, for the sake of covering bases, here is one.
The truth is that bad news sells. Maybe on some base level it makes us all feel better about our own lives, so we engage and react. One must also note that the online media makes its money off of advertising. The more people click on an article, the more the news outlet is paid. The more people shaking their heads around the water cooler, the more money is rolling in. A headline like: “Nobody was killed in small-town America Today” does not generate buzz. Thus our online news is populated with the world’s tragedies. The media deals in the business of the dead and dying, peddling photos of blood and misery for that next click or share. As a result we all have a somewhat warped view of the world. We see a world that makes us want to lock our doors and shutter the windows and just maybe not say hello to that person we pass on the street. Singal points out in her NY Mag article: “In addition to a burgeoning sense of helplessness, she said, cognitive shortcuts triggered by the news can also lead us to gradually see the world as a darker and darker place, chipping away at certain optimistic tendencies.”
What of the world events? The genocides and the oppression? The argument often made in defense of these articles is: awareness. The idea is that the more people know about an ongoing tragedy, the more likely someone will do something (anything) about it. This is why the internet has given rise to constructs like Change.org.
Change.org is a direct result of the online awareness and activism movement (The sort of thing people like Jeff Skoll love to propagate). There have been a few examples of success on the website, but it is not the fuzzy and feel-good sort of outfit it appears to be on the face of it. A Forbes piece from 2012 gives the highlight reel of some of the site’s greatest successes: “Change.org is best known for helping Trayvon Martin’s parents get the man who shot him arrested, ending Bank of America‘s $5 monthly checking account fees and helping Bettina Siegel get the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ban “pink slime” from school lunches.” The article goes on to explain that change.org is actually a for-profit company, and “paying clients” are given petitioners’ email addresses to send campaigns directly to their inboxes. That way we can all contribute to the American lobbying system by being micro-lobbyists for corporations. Forbes goes further to point out:
This hasn’t stopped it from becoming a target for political strong-arming. Earlier this year Change.org succumbed to pressure from labor unions and declined to renew ad contracts with two education reform groups, Stand for Children and StudentsFirst (headed by Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor of Washington, D.C.), because they favor reforms some see as antiunion.
Awareness relies on a capitalistic system and rightfully so. Capitalism can mobilize large amounts of material very quickly. It can get results. There is, however, a loss of efficiency in economies of scale. The further the reach of a corporation, the less perfect the information, the greater the deadweight loss. Change.org falls victim to its own system. Visibility is good, and there are “slacktivists” clicking on the petition button, but the real mechanics are divorced from the awareness. Simply knowing about something does not contribute actual effort. In a way, Change.org is like prayer: masses of people hoping beyond hope that they can find a prime mover powerful enough to take notice of their concerns and, well, move the earth. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. Perhaps god has a plan, or maybe god is just fickle.
I will not write off activist petition sites wholesale. They have garnered results at times. But one does have to wonder at the amount of effort each petitioner is willing to contribute to the cause. The assumption is that the mass total of attention will become an undeniable force, something which cannot be ignored. That is not always the case. The “righteousness” of the cause is not always apparent to the ‘powers that be’. If there is a power out there that must take notice and bring all the wishing into fruition, then how powerful really is that petition? It is only as powerful as those in high places who take notice.
Awareness in many ways is more about making people feel better about the greater broken world. Jesse Singal of NY Mag again hits the nail on the head in another 2014 article on the very subject. She writes:
The underlying assumption of so many attempts to influence people’s behavior — that they make bad choices because they lack the information to empower them to do otherwise — is, except in a few cases, false. And what’s worse, awareness-raising done in the wrong way can actually backfire, encouraging the negative activities in question. One of the favorite pastimes of a certain brand of concerned progressive, then, may be much more effective at making them feel good about themselves than actually improving the world in any substantive way.
In light of this, I wonder why awareness is such a pervasive justification for reading so much bad news. If these campaigns rarely garner tangible results, then awareness is more of a salve for the acid burn of toxic news. We reach a chicken and egg scenario: if awareness campaigns mostly make us feel better about bad events around the world, then why read about it in the first place? The ends are the same, are they not? If a wolf howls in the forest and nobody hears it, then did the wolf howl?
The Wolf and the Garden
Now to simply explore the psychology and philosophy behind our obsession with all this bad news. Human beings seek order in their lives for the most part. That element which lacks symmetry or is off balance or even merely does not gel with our view of how the world ought to be will always be chewing at the back of our minds. We are by nature obsessive. With individuals this varies by degree, but the element remains in all of us. Nobody is absolutely chaotic-neutral. If there is something damaged or broken in our lives, then we will seek to repair it: relationships, our possessions, our daily routines. We want the peace of an even keel and still waters.
Voltaire wrote in Candide: “We must cultivate our own garden.” I think this applies rather aptly to the wolf of the greater negative news cycle and the anxiety problem taking hold of America. We must ask: what is our garden? Change.org and the mass obsession with distant genocide would tell us that the whole world is our garden. I disagree with that definition. If we are protecting our garden’s gate from the wolf, then this view of “the garden” will never be free of the stalking beast. This view is fundamentally self-destructive. Does it stem from some first-world martyrdom complex, some need to take on the pain of another place or person because our lives are comparatively better? Maybe. The question then becomes: what is the state of our immediate gardens? Do we have everything in our vicinity worked out well enough to be worrying about the big wide world? This is an impossible question but worthy of the asking nonetheless.
I wonder if perchance global news is more of a form of entertainment than anything else. If we have no intention and very dubious methods of doing anything about it, then why obsess? Why invite the wolf into your head? Is not the wolf danger personified? I think it is important to take an extreme example into account in order to understand why. Some people are categorized as “thrill-seekers”, the people who jump out of planes and love roller coasters or dangerous mountain climbs. On the face of them, these acts are all inherently absurd in the context of survival and self-preservation. There is honestly no good practical reason to jump out of a plane if one is not at gunpoint. I think this thrill-seeking mentality is simply a highly exaggerated example of the same drive which pushes us to read about danger around the world. Most people are safely risk-averse but also prone to the doldrums as well.
In a 2009 briefing paper from The Dana Foundation, neurobiologist Kerry Ressler makes the following case:
Each of us, based on our genetic make-up and environmental influences, has different propensities for being drawn toward something that is attractive and appetitive, and on the opposite side, being averse to things that are dangerous or fearful,” Ressler says. “My guess is that the difference between a thrill-seeking person and someone who is not is probably a combination of the level of reward they get from novelty, thrill, or adventure and how much they’re afraid of it.
In other words, we invite the wolf into our lives purposefully, although we may not be immediately aware of what we are doing. I think it may be the human animal’s way of running a test or a fire-drill, making sure the adrenaline and norepinephrine avenues are all there and working as they should be. We cannot will it into being or will it away, it comes on as the beating of the heart, the rote programming of a being only partially under our control. Perhaps the aspect of entertainment comes from our conscious mind, while the true mechanism remains hidden deep in the clusters of our neurons. Our bodies have their own ends, and our consciousness is merely along for the ride.
Chasing the Tail
Where does this leave us? All this neurology can explain why we do the things we do, but what of ethics? Do we toss the moral questions regarding the negative news cycle and its hazardous effects on our minds and bodies out the window simply because it is in our physiological nature to find them attractive? That would be just as fatalistic as watching news stories about genocide just to feel better about one’s own life. What is to be done if we are our own wolves in the modern age? The perennial humanist optimists would likely speak their word of god by saying “This too shall pass” and that great heal-all of evolutionary development may someday chase the wolf away. I earnestly hope that is not the case.
We need the wolf in the head. It keeps us on our toes. While many of us are very comfortable and safe in our modern situations, this can change in a heartbeat. One of the great conceits of our world is that we are always moving to a better place and that widespread tragedy could not likely befall any of us in an instant. Maybe a glimpse of the wolf at the garden’s gate will keep us somewhat shaken from that static state. (Impromptu poetry happens, apparently) I’m not suddenly turning around and condoning the negative news cycle. There are better wolves than a newsfeed lamentation of vague global cruelty, just as there are better gardens than general congenial goodwill to all men. “I want to make love to the world” can come from the mouth of anyone, anyone. Yes, yes there are better wolves. This is why we must stand for something, create a garden worth defending. The wolves will come when they come, but we can only control what we protect from them.