It’s been over two years since the EU Referendum and US presidential election, and I’m still angry. But more and more, I find myself reading a headline and thinking, nope, not today.
Am I apathetic? Desensitized? Putting my head in the sand? Just tired?
I’ve always been opinionated, but 2016 was the year I really started arguing with people, and I suspect I’m not alone. I clashed with acquaintances here in the United Kingdom over the result of the EU Referendum, and the following November, Twitter became even more of a battleground.
There has been plenty said about how that year galvanized and engaged people, and it’s true; Trump and Brexit happened right under liberals’ noses, who could no longer make assumptions about other people’s understanding of “progress.” The urgency to be informed about politics and have a vocal position on everything was palpable. I would rage and rant about injustice and inequality, and half the time my anger would be directed not at those who were behind it, but the people in my life who hadn’t read up on a particular topic and formulated a stance on it. “Ignorance isn’t innocence,” I would say, a hint of superiority in my voice.
But at an indistinct point along the way, I confused saying something — anything — with actually having something to say. Responding to world events began to feel like a race to have the most insightful takeaway. The impulse to formulate a hot take become more informed by a rush of endorphins than inspired by genuine activism.
I’ll never be in the anti-social media camp — I think that oversimplifies it — but it is becoming increasingly evident that clickbait news and headlines designed to provoke outrage are conditioning us to enact a series of predetermined reactions. Reactions which function more as markers of our political inclinations and self-perceived progressiveness than genuine upset.
When appropriately channelled and articulated, anger can be a force for positive social change. C. Daryl Cameron, research associate at the Rock Ethics Institute, suggests that “outrage can get you to care, can get you motivated to sign petitions, can get you to volunteer, things which have outcomes that are much longer-term than signalling.” But when anger is treated as an end rather than a means to an end, that endgame can be lost.
In other words, clapping back at someone online or wading into a conversation we’re ill-prepared for might not be as good a use of our time and energy as putting the work in to educate ourselves and make a difference beyond our phone screens.
That doesn’t mean the rage isn’t real — the rage I feel when I see brazen nationalism, racism or transphobia online, or watch as marginalized people are treated as subjects for debate in the media, like laboratory animals, is very real. But lately, I’ve found myself wondering: When I quote-tweet a bigoted remark, am I providing much-needed counter speech, or am I simply further amplifying harmful content? Am I changing hearts and minds, or squabbling with trolls who just want conflict for its own sake? I still don’t have a surefire answer to this, but I’m beginning to believe that “joining the conversation” is a responsibility none of us should take lightly — not just for the sake of progress, but for our own mental health and agility.
I feel like 40% of my thinking space has been occupied by Brexit anxiety for nearly 3 years now, and I am so, so tired of it. pic.twitter.com/o6LMAJKLc1
— Chris McCrudden (@cmccrudden) April 5, 2019
When we live our lives online, inundated with new developments and challenges to debate with people we ideologically agree or disagree with, rushing to have a hot take on every last thing isn’t always productive. It’s perfectly okay to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t have an opinion on that” to those who are desperate to engage in some bad faith discourse on the wild headline of the day. Because tomorrow that wild headline will be gone, and all you’ll be left with is your own exhaustion.
Disengaging in this manner isn’t about abstaining from discourse altogether, it’s about eschewing your knee-jerk reactions in favor of something slower and more thoughtful. Of actually taking the time to figure out how you really feel about a certain issue or a series of connected issues. This deliberateness is more difficult to parlay into glib dunks on Twitter or Instagram, especially in a frantic 24-hour news cycle where the headline which piques your interest or stokes your outrage is replaced by an even wilder one before you have figured out where you stand. And that’s a good thing, because snap judgments are a trap. The situation is a lot more nuanced than that.
It’s understandable to feel numb or just downright exhausted in the face of everything that’s happening. And there’s merit, I think, to stepping back from the rapid-fire arguing to see the forest for the trees. Doing so will not halt progress or make us apathetic — but rather make us thoughtful, and even give us the space to examine our own role in where we are today, instead of always assuming we’re categorically righteous. It’s okay to conserve energy, to pursue deeper reflection and to pick our battles — there are plenty in front of us.
Graphics by Madeline Montoya.