#018 Why The News Hurts So Much and What To Do About It
On Abe’s Assassination and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
I spent the day Abe died writing in a café. I didn’t overhear anyone talking about it, nor see anyone behaving differently. On the day of his funeral, I had a hair appointment. My Japanese hairdresser and I chatted for 45 minutes about life and family, and neither of us mentioned the assassination. When I got home, I realized I forgot to bring it up.
I wanted to ask him why I haven’t seen any evidence of how shocked and aggrieved the Japanese people are considering how the media was going on and on about it.
I watched an interview with four Japanese people about Abe’s assassination. In it, one woman says:
In people’s everyday lives, it was not discussed as much, and many people went out that night without a second thought. The fact that our daily lives remain the same despite such a major incident is a sign of peace, and an indication that we take peace for granted.
I thought she meant that it was a good thing—no one panicked because everyone takes peace for granted—but later on, she adds:
We’ve been seeing more crimes committed by people dissatisfied with society, using murder as a means to raise their voice. I think this might be our wake-up call to stop taking peace for granted.
Despite her last sentence, it’s not clear to me whether she thinks taking peace for granted is a good or bad thing.
Is the Japanese non-response a healthy distancing or an unhealthy disconnect? What’s the difference?
I recently read Heart of Darkness, and it led me to think more about this.
The main character is an Englishman named Marlow. Sometime in the 1890s, he takes a job captaining a steamboat up the Congo River.
At one point, he compares the African man who maintains the vertical boiler of his steamboat (a somewhat technical seeming job) to a dog in breeches.
He also witnesses the Europeans commit several horrific atrocities against the Congolese people, and it makes him feel kind of bad. He starts to wonder if his own people are as civilized as he thought.
Marlow is no prodigy of social justice. He never rethinks the status of the Congolese people, but he abhors the cruelty he sees inflicted upon them because he’s a human being. He recognizes pain, torture, and senseless death when he sees it.
From the beginning, Marlow knew he was the beneficiary of a system that exploited the land, animals, and people of Africa, and he was comfortable with that arrangement until he had to witness the consequences of it close up.
Why the difference?
An fMRI study examines this phenomenon by comparing the trolley and footbridge dilemmas. In the trolley dilemma, a runway trolley is headed for five people. The only way to save them is to hit a switch that will change the trolley onto a track that will kill one person instead of five. Do you do it? Most people say yes.
In the footbridge dilemma, it’s the same situation, but this time, you’re on a footbridge with a stranger, and the only way to save the five people is to push that stranger off the bridge onto the tracks to stop the train. Do you do it? Most people say no.
The study says:
The thought of pushing someone to his death is, we propose, more emotionally salient than the thought of hitting a switch that will cause a trolley to produce similar consequences, and it is this emotional response that accounts for people’s tendency to treat these cases differently.
This is why I think Heart of Darkness is one of the most studied and referenced books in Western canon. It’s not because it’s so well-written, it’s because those of us who live in a wealthy countries recognize Marlow’s shift in emotional salience, and we see it in ourselves.
We know that animal products come from factory farming, plastics and fossil fuels are pollutants, cheap garments are assembled by child labor (or adults in inhumane working conditions), and the list goes on.
We’re aware that we are the beneficiaries of a system that exploits others, and as long as we can distance ourselves from it, we can live with it.
I’m not saying this to make you feel shitty. I’m saying it to acknowledge the truth of our experience. Most of us don’t want to be in a system that causes unnecessary suffering, but, like Marlow, we’re not really sure what to do about it, either.
Before things get too dire-sounding here, I’d like to point out this New York Times article, which says that things are better for humans now than they’ve ever been before. There is no mention of the environment or animals.
The human experience is better than ever, but Americans feel worse about it than ever before.
The emotional saliency of our situation has changed. We now experience climate change ourselves. Many of us personally suffer from the consequences of a system that was designed to take care of the people on top and no one else. But, mostly, social media and the 24-hour news cycle demand that everything be emotionally salient all the time, but everything can’t be emotionally salient all the time. That’s not a sustainable way to live.
So, what do we do with this?
First, I suggest reading this opinion piece in The Washington Post about how most of today’s news isn’t fit for human consumption and what to do about it.
I’m not advocating for keeping our heads stuck in the sand, but to be mindful of what we allow into our bubble of emotional salience.
We can argue all day about which issues are the most important, but each of us is capable of sitting down and figuring out our own bandwidth for emotional salience, and which issues are closest to our own hearts.
Then, we can choose not to be like Marlow and do something tangible about our chosen issue (posting on social media doesn’t count). I think that’s a far better practice than spending most of our time locked in conflict and overwhelmed into inaction.
The assassination of Abe seems to not have much emotional salience for the Japanese people. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. Maybe the important thing is that they aren’t panicking over an event that probably isn’t a sign of anything worse yet to come.
If I were to speculate, I’d say this: In general, Japanese culture promotes far more civic-mindedness than American culture. They tend to quietly focus on good daily practices, rather than loudly bemoan things outside of their control. They trust their system (for better and for worse), and they trust each other. All of that leads to a lot of calm and very little social volatility, which is something it seems like the US could use, right now.
Links and Things
I’m sorry, but if you don’t watch this video, there’s something seriously wrong with you.
I really enjoyed the documentary Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir.
Refind is a newsletter that sends seven links curated to your tastes per day. For every unique click I send to them, they send me an appropriate click back, so taking a quick gander at what they have to offer is a great way to support my newsletter.