Monday, November 28, 2016

We have two choices: We can succumb to what journalists call "mean world syndrome," or we can seek out and share the truth

Several days ago, as I worked through my post-election feelings by writing this blog series, I was spooked by the idea that the clock was being dialed back on half a century worth of progress in civil rights and other social reforms. It felt like a darkness was descending, and all these rioters, hate-criminals, and people who twist scripture to justify not serving or working with people they don’t like soon would be fighting in the dark, and they’d just start lashing out at everybody in the chaos, and every side would lose, and nothing coherent would be left to work with. 

Then I woke up. Literally and figuratively. 

The next morning, after the first few seconds of feeling like I was in a bad movie after what I saw on the news and Facebook the night before, I realized, Wait a minute! I just fell for exactly what my journalism professor warned us about! 

Yes these terrible things are happening, but seeing and focusing solely on them will only cloud our perception of the true size of the problem, negate whatever positives and opportunities do exist, and thus prevent us from finding any courage or motivation to strive to turn our civilization’s clock forward again. 

The news has stopped informing us and is only adding to the confusion, by promoting what scholars of journalism call “mean world syndrome.” A news commentator once pointed out, for example, that the news only covers the few planes that crash each year, not the thousands that take off and land safely in the same time period. Because of this, it appears that plane crashes are more common than they really are. 

The same is true of the crime rate: A journalism study revealed that people tend to think the crime rate is much higher than it actually is because of how crime is disproportionately represented in the news. While this doesn’t mean no corrective action is needed regarding the crime we do have, it implies that in order to come up with effective means to counteract this negativity, we need to have an accurate perception of the true scope of the problem instead of just react in despair and paranoia. 

I decided that, regardless of if what I choose to do instead makes much difference in the bigger picture—blog about a more balanced perspective, promote dialogue, and refuse to participate in online slander or assign disparaging labels to people who see things differently than I do—at least it’s something, which is more than I could do if I gave in to the kind of despair and anger that’s causing people to reenact the Cold War in their families and think moving to Canada is their only reasonable option. 

At the same time, I’m not going to waste my time condemning such people as they struggle to work through their feelings. Part of creating an environment where civil, empowering dialogue can thrive is not assuming we know better than other people the best way for them to handle their feelings. A hilarious “meme” one of my coworkers found online a few months ago is as true as it is funny: “No one in the history of calming down has ever calmed down by being told to calm down.” 

I’ll conclude this six-post series of election-reflections with some words from Nichiren Daishonin, from his gosho On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land: “If you care anything about your personal security, you should first and foremost pray for order and tranquility throughout the four quarters of the land, should you not?” (WND-1, pg. 24) 

For me, this isn’t a passive prayer for other people to make my world safe. It’s a challenge to all of us to each do our part to create peace in our land, and offer compassion and encouragement to all those people who think it can’t be done. 

Image: Detail from “Priestesses of Earth” by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Colored pencil, Sharpie marker, Prismacolor marker, metallic gel pen 

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