Monday, September 5, 2016

It’s not so much about willful apathy as it is about self-defense against information overload...

Until a few months ago, most of my religion-related news came from the interfaith community. Networking and reading the e-newsletters of Read the Spirit, the Interfaith Leadership Council, and WISDOM has helped inform me about what’s going right in American interfaith relations. 

When I subscribed to the Washington Post’s weekly e-newsletter “Acts of Faith,” I anticipated similar news; what I’ve read instead has mostly highlighted what is currently going very, very wrong in American interfaith relations. 

This is not a negative criticism of the writers or the series; the articles are well-written, informative, and timely. Since these are opinion pieces, the writers don’t have to pretend to be objective and can present their own views, as well as similar views from other experts and laypeople. Some of the writers have backgrounds in religious leadership or public policymaking themselves. 

While their insights are excellent, the news they present is often downright disturbing, and I feel so upset and angry I have to simply stop reading after just one article. Sometimes I don’t even get past the headlines. 

In such cases, I think to myself, unless there is something I will do directly in response to this particular problem, such as become politically active or join a social-justice organization, there’s no value in me reading this just for the sake of complaining about it to other people who also aren’t going to do anything directly as a result. 

It’s often enough for me to know that it is going on, and to use that knowing as that much more motivation to do the best I can in the ways that are within my abilities and personal interests to help make this world more humane.

Many people say that “avoiding the news” is ignorant or apathetic, and that it’s important to be “informed” about what’s going on in the world. To such people I point out that watching the news to be “informed” about the world is actually a moot point, because the news only covers a small fraction of what’s really going on, without any cultural or historical context to help people really make sense of what they’re seeing. (I discuss this at length in my 2015 post about the difference between competitive and cooperative news.) Other times, it’s just not worth arguing with them, so I simply state that I see it differently and let the subject drop. 

Not filtering our exposure to the constant barrage of discouraging and often frightening information is what’s more likely to make us become apathetic than trying to absorb all of it. I use an electrical breaker as a metaphor: a circuit-breaker can only handle the electrical load it’s rated for; anything beyond that and the circuit will trip, shutting the power off completely. 

Human beings can only process so much information at one time, before they tune out. They might still react to the information, but too many have lost the ability to make the information meaningful to them, or feel motivated to learn more about it for the sake of actually doing something themselves that will help—even if that just means being more mindful about not continuing to unintentionally contribute to the problem. 

If anyone was to honestly state that this is where they’re at mentally regarding the news, people would condemn them as ignorant or shallow or apathetic. The truth is, this kind of filtering is not reflective of some character flaw; it’s a coping mechanism people develop in response to too much input. 

Ever notice how the more “connected” we get electronically, the more disconnected people become not just from each other in real-time, but from the motivation to engage in society in response to what’s happening? 

It’s like standing silently in a circle of people, all of whom are talking to you about different things at the same time, and who don’t listen when you tell them to take turns or slow down so you can really understand them. What are you likely to say to them if they just keep bombarding you with more and more unfiltered, highly-emotive information? 

“Stop talking! Just stop talking!” 

Illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker

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