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They Have To Be Monsters

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Since I started working on Discourse, I spend a lot of more time thinking about how software can encourage and nudge people to be more empathetic online. That's why it's troubling especially hard to read articles like this one:

My brother’s 32nd birthday is today. It’s an especially emotional day for his family because he’s not alive for it.

He died of a heroin overdose last February. This year is even harder than the last. I started weeping at midnight and eventually cried myself to sleep. Today’s symptoms include explosions of sporadic sobbing and an insurmountable feeling of emptiness. My mom posted a gut-wrenching comment on my brother’s Facebook page about the unfairness of it all. Her baby should be here, not gone. “Where is the God that is making us all so sad?” she asked.

In response, someone — a stranger/(I assume) another human being — commented with one word: “Junkie.”

The interaction may seem a bit strange and out of context until you realize that this is the Facebook page of a person who was somewhat famous, who produced the excellent show Parks and Recreation. Not that this forgives the behavior in any way, of course, but it does explain why strangers would wander by and make observations.

There is deep truth in the old idea that people are able to say these things because they are looking at a screen full of words, not directly at the face of the person they're about to say a terrible thing to. That one level of abstraction the Internet allows, typing, which is so immensely powerful in so many other contexts …

… has some crippling emotional consequences.

As an exercise in empathy, try to imagine saying reading some of the terrible things people typed say to each other online to a real person sitting directly in front of you. Or don't imagine, and just watch this video.

I challenge you to watch the entirety of that video. I couldn't do it. This is the second time I've tried, and I had to turn it off not even 2 minutes in because I couldn't take it any more.

It's no coincidence that these are comments directed at women. Over the last few years I have come to understand how, as a straight white man, I have the privilege of being immune from most of this kind of treatment. But others are not so fortunate. The Guardian analyzed 70 million comments and found that online abuse is heaped disproportionately on women, people of color, and people of different sexual orientation.

And avalanches happen easily online. Anonymity disinhibits people, making some of them more likely to be abusive. Mobs can form quickly: once one abusive comment is posted, others will often pile in, competing to see who can be the most cruel. This abuse can move across platforms at great speed – from Twitter, to Facebook, to blogposts – and it can be viewed on multiple devices – the desktop at work, the mobile phone at home. To the person targeted, it can feel like the perpetrator is everywhere: at home, in the office, on the bus, in the street.

I've only had a little taste of this treatment, once. The sense of being "under siege" – a constant barrage of vitriol and judgment pouring your way every day, every hour – was palpable. It was not pleasant. It absolutely affected my state of mind. Someone remarked in the comments that ultimately it did not matter, because as a white man I could walk away from the whole situation any time. And they were right. I began to appreciate what it would feel like when you can't walk away, when this harassment follows you around everywhere you go online, and you never really know when the next incident will occur, or exactly what shape it will take.

Imagine the feeling of being constantly on edge like that, every day. What happens to your state of mind when walking away isn't an option? It gave me great pause.

The Scream by Nathan Sawaya

I greatly admired the way Stephanie Wittels Wachs actually engaged with the person who left that awful comment. This is a man who has had two children of his own, and should be no stranger to the kind of unbearable pain involved in a your child's death. And yet he felt the need to post the word "Junkie" in reply to a mother's anguish over losing her child to drug addiction.

Isn’t this what empathy is? Putting myself in someone else’s shoes with the knowledge and awareness that I, too, am human and, therefore, susceptible to this tragedy or any number of tragedies along the way?

Most would simply delete the comment, block the user, and walk away. Totally defensible. But she didn't. She takes the time and effort to attempt to understand this person who is abusing her mother, to reach them, to connect, to demonstrate practice the very empathy this man appears incapable of.

Consider the related story of Lenny Pozner, who lost a child at Sandy Hook, and became the target of groups who believe the event was a hoax, and similarly selflessly devotes much of his time to refuting and countering these bizarre claims.

Tracy’s alleged harassment was hardly the first, Pozner said. There’s a whole network of people who believe the media reported a mass shooting that never happened, he said, that the tragedy was an elaborate hoax designed to increase support for gun control. Pozner said he gets ugly comments often on social media, such as, “Eventually you’ll be tried for your crimes of treason against the people,” “… I won’t be satisfied until the caksets are opened…” and “How much money did you get for faking all of this?”

It's easy to practice empathy when you limit it to people that are easy to empathize with – the downtrodden, the undeserving victims. But it is another matter entirely to empathize with those that hate, harangue, and intentionally make other people's lives miserable. If you can do this, you are a far better person than me. I struggle with it. But my hat is off to you. There's no better way to teach empathy than to practice it, in the most difficult situations. particularly toward those who appear to have none.

In individual cases, reaching out and really trying to empathize with people you disagree with or dislike can work, even people who happen to be lifelong members of hate organizations, as in the remarkable story of Megan Phelps-Roper:

As a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, in Topeka, Kansas, Phelps-Roper believed that AIDS was a curse sent by God. She believed that all manner of other tragedies—war, natural disaster, mass shootings—were warnings from God to a doomed nation, and that it was her duty to spread the news of His righteous judgments. To protest the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in America, the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funerals of gay men who died of AIDS and of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members held signs with slogans like “GOD HATES FAGS” and “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS,” and the outrage that their efforts attracted had turned the small church, which had fewer than a hundred members, into a global symbol of hatred.

Perhaps one of the greatest failings of the Internet is the breakdown in cost of emotional labor.

First we’ll reframe the problem: the real issue is not Problem Child’s opinions – he can have whatever opinions he wants. The issue is that he’s doing zero emotional labor – he’s not thinking about his audience or his effect on people at all. (Possibly, he’s just really bad at modeling other people’s responses – the outcome is the same whether he lacks the will or lacks the skill.) But to be a good community member, he needs to consider his audience.

True empathy means reaching out and engaging in a loving way with everyone, even those that are hurtful, hateful, or spiteful. But on the Internet, can you do it every day, multiple times a day, across hundreds of people? Is this a reasonable thing to ask of someone? ask? Is it even possible, short of sainthood?

The question remains: why would people post such hateful thingsin the first place? Why things?Why would they reply "Junkie" to a mother's anguish? Why ask the would they ask a father of a murdered child to publicly prove his child's death was not a hoax? Why would they tweet "Thank God for AIDS!" AIDS!"?

Unfortunately, I think I know the answer to this question, and you're not going to like it.

Busy-Work by Shen, owlturd.com

I don't like it. I don't want it. But I know.

I have laid some heavy stuff on you in this post, and for that, I apologize. I think the weight of what I'm trying to communicate here requires it. I have to warn you that the next article I'm about to link is far heavier than beyond anything I have posted above, maybe the heaviest thing I've ever posted. even on this blog, ever. It's about the legal quandary presented in the tragic cases of children who died because their parents accidentally left them strapped into carseats, and it won a much deserved pulitzer. It is also one of the most harrowing things I have ever read.

Ed Hickling believes he knows why. Hickling is a clinical psychologist from Albany, N.Y., who has studied the effects of fatal auto accidents on the drivers who survive them. He says these people are often judged with disproportionate harshness by the public, even when it was clearly an accident, and even when it was indisputably not their fault.

Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.

In hyperthermia cases, he believes, the parents are demonized for much the same reasons. “We are vulnerable, but we don’t want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we’ll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don’t want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters.

This man left the junkie comment because he is afraid. He is afraid his own children could become drug addicts. He is afraid his children, through no fault of his, through no fault of anyone at all, could die at 30. When presented with real, tangible evidence of the pain and grief a mother feels at the drug related death of her own child, and the reality that it could happen to anyone, it became so overwhelming that it was too much for him to bear.

Those "Sandy Hook Truthers" harass the father of a victim because they are afraid. They are afraid their own children could be viciously gunned down in cold blood any day of the week, bullets tearing their way through the bodies of the teachers standing in front of them, desperately trying to protect them from being murdered. They can't do anything to protect their children from this, and in fact there's nothing any of us can do to protect our children from being murdered at random, while at school any day of the week, at the whim of any mentally unstable individual with access to an assault rifle. That's the harsh reality.

When faced with the abyss of presented with evidence of the crippling pain and grief that parents feel over the loss of their children, due to utter random chance in a world they can't control, they could never control, maybe none of us can ever control, the overwhelming sense of existential dread is simply too much to bear. So they have to be monsters. They must be.

And we will fight these monsters, tooth and nail, raging in our hatred, so we can forget our pain, at least for a while.

After Lyn Balfour’s acquittal, this comment appeared on the Charlottesville News Web site:

“If she had too many things on her mind then she should have kept her legs closed and not had any kids. They should lock her in a car during a hot day and see what happens.”

I imagine the suffering pain that these parents are already going through, reading these words that another human being typed to them, just typed, and something breaks inside me. I can't process it. But rather than pitting ourselves against each other out of fear, recognize that the monster who posted this terrible thing is me. It's you. It's all of us.

The weight of seeing ability to see through the fear and beyond the monster to simply discover see yourself is often too terrible for many people to bear. In a world of hard things, it's the hardest there is. And we could sure use each other's help and understanding in the process.

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ideocl4st
1514 days ago
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Brentwahn
1518 days ago
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Great article on human empathy and why we sadly often avoid exhibiting it.
Sydney, Australia
Courtney
1529 days ago
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Probably the most thorough answer to "but why would someone write that?!"
Portland, OR
blakeyrat
1529 days ago
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Maybe get Discourse to actually work without 50,000 bugs before trying to change the world with it. (The key to empathy? Markdown! Apparently.)
toddgrotenhuis
1519 days ago
Feel better?
kerray
1529 days ago
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Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.

We are vulnerable, but we don’t want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we’ll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don’t want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters.
Brno, CZ

Why Did God Create Atheists?

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razairazerci:

religiousragings:

There is a famous story told in Chassidic literature that addresses this very question. The Master teaches the student that God created everything in the world to be appreciated, since everything is here to teach us a lesson. 

One clever student asks “What lesson can we learn from atheists? Why did God create them?”

The Master responds “God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all — the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs and act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he is not doing so because of some religious teaching. He does not believe that god commanded him to perform this act. In fact, he does not believe in God at all, so his acts are based on an inner sense of morality. And look at the kindness he can bestow upon others simply because he feels it to be right.”

“This means,” the Master continued “that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say ‘I pray that God will help you.’ Instead for the moment, you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help, and say ‘I will help you.’”

ETA source: Tales of Hasidim Vol. 2 by Mar

I started reading this and was worried it would be something attacking atheists, or bashing religion, but this makes me really, really happy.

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ideocl4st
1989 days ago
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Eloquence
1973 days ago
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Even for a religious guy, this is pretty deep. I like it.
Baltimore, Maryland
jprodgers
1989 days ago
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Haven't read this before, but I used a similar argument with my sister. Her husband is a preacher, and they have 4 boys. I've been an atheist for nearly 20 years, so we've had some interesting conversations. When I pointed out that I spend a ton of my time doing volunteer work, and asked her why I would do such a thing if I didn't believe in god. She said she didn't know or understand why, and I answered that I feel that it's the right thing to do, and I go by the ethics I've spent a great deal of time thinking about.
Somerville, MA
Cafeine
1990 days ago
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Love it indeed. ;)
Paris / France
davelevy
1990 days ago
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A text that tells the religious to have faith, but also elevates the non-religious. Much more respect to be given.
ÜT: 41.995898,-72.5841
vpatil
1991 days ago
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this is great

Why Procrastinators Procrastinate

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pro-cras-ti-na-tion |prəˌkrastəˈnāSHən, prō-|
noun
the action of delaying or postponing something:your first tip is to avoid procrastination.

Who would have thought that after decades of struggle with procrastination, the dictionary, of all places, would hold the solution.

Avoid procrastination. So elegant in its simplicity.

While we're here, let's make sure obese people avoid overeating, depressed people avoid apathy, and someone please tell beached whales that they should try to avoid being out of the ocean.

No, "avoid procrastination" is only good advice for fake procrastinators—those people that are like, "I totally go on Facebook a few times every day at work—I'm such a procrastinator!" The same people that will say to a real procrastinator something like, "Just don't procrastinate and you'll be fine."

The thing that neither the dictionary nor fake procrastinators understand is that for a real procrastinator, procrastination isn't optional—it's something they don't know how to not do.

In college, the sudden unbridled personal freedom was a disaster for me—I did nothing, ever, for any reason. The one exception was that I had to hand in papers from time to time. I would do those the night before, until I realized I could just do them through the night, and I did that until I realized I could actually start them in the early morning on the day early the morning they were due. This behavior reached caricature levels when I was unable to start writing my 90-page senior thesis until 72 hours before it was due, an experience that ended with me in the campus doctor's office learning that lack of blood sugar was the reason my hands had gone numb and curled up against my will. (I did get the thesis in—no, it was not good.)

Even today, this post won't be up until late Tuesday night because I spent a bunch of hours doing things like seeing this picturesitting on my desktop from the last post, opening it, looking at it for a long time thinking about how easily he could beat me in a fight, then wondering if he could beat a tiger in a fight, then wondering who would win between a lion and a tiger, and then googling that and reading about it for a while awhile (the tiger would win). I have problems.

To understand why procrastinators procrastinate so much, let's start by understanding a non-procrastinator's brain:






Pretty normal, right? Now, let's look at a procrastinator's brain:





Notice anything different?

It seems the Rational Decision-Maker in the procrastinator's brain is coexisting with a pet—the Instant Gratification Monkey.

This would be fine—cute, even—if the Rational Decision-Maker knew the first thing about how to own a monkey. But unfortunately, it wasn't a part of his training and he's left completely helpless as the monkey makes it impossible for him to do his job.



















The fact is, the Instant Gratification Monkey is the last creature who should be in charge of decisions—he thinks only about the present, ignoring lessons from the past and disregarding the future altogether, and he concerns himself entirely with maximizing the ease and pleasure of the current moment. He doesn't understand the Rational Decision-Maker any better than the Rational Decision-Maker understands him—why would we continue doing this jog, he thinks, when we could stop, which would feel better. Why would we practice that instrument when it's not fun? Why would we ever use a computer for work when the internet is sitting right there waiting to be played with? He thinks humans are insane.

In the monkey world, he's got it all figured out—if you eat when you're hungry, sleep when you're tired, and don't do anything difficult, you're a pretty successful monkey. The problem for the procrastinator is that he happens to live in the human world, making the Instant Gratification Monkey a highly unqualified navigator. Meanwhile, the Rational Decision-Maker, who was trained to make rational decisions, not to deal with competition over the controls, doesn't know how to put up an a effective fight—he just feels worse and worse about himself the more he fails and the more the suffering procrastinator whose head he's in berates him.

It's a mess. And with the monkey in charge, the procrastinator finds himself spending a lot of time in a place called the Dark Playground.* Playground.

The Dark Playground is a place every procrastinator knows well. It's a place where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening. The fun you have in the Dark Playground isn't actually fun because it's completely unearned and the air is filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread. Sometimes the Rational Decision-Maker puts his foot down and refuses to let you even do the unfun fun leisure play, and since the Instant Gratification Monkey sure as hell isn't gonna let you work, you find yourself in a bizarre purgatory of weird activities where everyone loses.**


(Most of you are probably reading this article in the Dark Playground right now.)




And the poor Rational Decision-Maker just mopes, trying to figure out how he let the human he's supposed to be in charge of end up here again.








Given this predicament, how does the procrastinator ever manage to accomplish anything? something?

As it turns out, there's one thing that scares the shit out of the Instant Gratification Monkey:




The Panic Monster is dormant most of the time, but he suddenly wakes up when a deadline gets too close or when there's danger of public embarrassment, a career disaster, or some other scary consequence.











The Instant Gratification Monkey, normally unshakable, is terrified of the Panic Monster. How else could you explain the same person who can't write a paper's introductory sentence over a two-week span suddenly having the ability to stay up all night, fighting exhaustion, and write eight pages? Why else would an extraordinarily lazy person begin a rigorous workout routine other than a Panic Monster panic monster freakout about becoming less attractive?

And these are the lucky procrastinators—there are some who don't even respond


Thanks
to the Panic Monster, and in the most desperate moments they end up running up the tree with the monkey, entering a state of self-annihilating shutdown.

Quite a crowd we are.

Of course, this is no way to live. Even for the procrastinator who does manage to eventually get things done and
the procrastinator will usually end up getting things done when he needs to and will probably remain a competent member of society, something has to change. society. But this isn't a great way to live. Here are the main reasons why: issues:

1) It's unpleasant. Far too much of the procrastinator's precious time is spent toiling in the Dark Playground, time that could have been spent enjoying satisfying, well-earned leisure if things had been done on a more logical schedule. And panic isn't fun for anyone.

2) The procrastinator ultimately sells himself short.He ends up underachieving and fails to reach his potential, which eats away at the him over time and fills him with regret and self-loathing.

3) The Have-To-Dos may happen, but not the Want-To-Dos.Even if the procrastinator is in the type of career where the Panic Monster is regularly present and he's able to be fulfilled at work, the other things in life that are important to him—getting in shape, cooking elaborate meals, learning to play the guitar, writing a book, reading, or even making a bold career switch—never happen because the Panic Monster doesn't usually get involved with those things. Undertakings like those expand our experiences, make our lives richer, and bring us a lot of happiness—and for most procrastinators, they get left in the dust.

So how can a procrastinator improve and become happier? That's the topic of We'll discuss in next week's post.

---------

* A lot of you are probably reading this article while in the Dark Playground.

** I spent two hours in the Dark Playground right before I drew the Dark Playground drawing, because I was dreading having to draw the signpost, which I knew would be hard and take forever (which it did).






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ideocl4st
2438 days ago
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howcross
2435 days ago
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I hate it when the monkey is in charge (except when I love having the monkey in charge). Yup, I'm writing from the Dark Playground right now.
Howcross Castle
adamrmorris
2436 days ago
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Nhhhhice.
emdeesee
2437 days ago
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QFT

Is there anyone, though, who doesn't see themselves in this? Just curious...
Sherman, TX
WorldMaker
2437 days ago
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Yup.
Louisville, Kentucky
Cafeine
2438 days ago
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Oh I know that monkey... :(
Paris / France
nealkemp
2439 days ago
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The meta is strong with this.
London
Michdevilish
2439 days ago
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My procrastinating Panic Monster anxiously awaits the next post...
Canada
superiphi
2439 days ago
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Cute. Oversimplifies though - the monkey is often invited willingly not just because of gratification but diversion... diversion from fear. Fear about the work - fear of mistakes, fear of not being good enough. Thats why it's displaced by a bigger fear
Idle, Bradford, United Kingdom
jhamill
2441 days ago
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Yup.
California
ScottInPDX
2441 days ago
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This could have spilled right from my brain. If I had bothered to do it, of course...
Portland, Oregon, USA, Earth
TARDIS75
2441 days ago
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Ummmmm, yup!
Rockford, Illinois
glenn
2441 days ago
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Sooo true
Waterloo, Canada

The Story of the Cheese Maze

4 Comments and 11 Shares
if_you_dont_have_cheese_its_your_own_damn_fault
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ideocl4st
2624 days ago
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pawel_lasek
2612 days ago
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... Very, very apt
United Kingdom
Baughn
2623 days ago
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That's not how I remember it going...
AndyG1128
2624 days ago
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Where have I read this before....
Nashville, TN
afita
2624 days ago
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This looks familiar.
Cluj-Napoca, România

The power of ignoring mainstream news

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“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” - Thomas Jefferson

Around 2 years ago I stopped reading and watching mainstream news. I don’t read a single newspaper, offline or online, and I don’t watch any TV at all. I recently mentioned this on Twitter and Facebook and it created a lot of discussion, so I wanted to expand on my thoughts and experiences.

When I first started ignoring news, I felt that I was simply making an excuse, that if I had more time I should read the news. Today, however, it is a very deliberate choice and I feel consistently happier every single day due to ignoring the mainstream news. It just so happens that the last 2 years have also been the most enjoyable and productive of my entire life, and have contained some of my greatest achievements. Here are a few reasons I think we should stop consuming mainstream news:

News is negative

“The news media are, for the most part, the bringers of bad news… and it’s not entirely the media’s fault, bad news gets higher ratings and sells more papers than good news.” - Peter McWilliams

The most interesting fact I learned in the last few years about mainstream media is that is that almost all news reported is negative. Studies have shown that the ratio of bad news to good news is around 17:1. That means that 95% is negative. This is a massive number, and I’m sure if you stop to think for a moment about the most recent news you watched, it has also been overwhelmingly negative. In my experience, 95% is absolutely the correct ratio in the news. However, 95% is a very bad reflection of the real ratio of good to bad in the world. Many great things happen, they just don’t sell newspapers.

Mainstream news report about wars, natural disasters, murders and other kinds of suffering. It seems the only natural conclusion of watching or reading mainstream news is that the world is a terrible place, and that it is getting worse every day. However, the reality of course is the complete opposite: we live in an amazing time and the human race is improving at a faster pace than ever before.

The effect of negative news

“When you turn on the television, for instance, you run the risk ingesting harmful things, such as violence, despair, or fear.” - Thich Nhat Hanh

Another very interesting thing I’ve learned in the last few years is the incredible impact that being around the right people can have on your trajectory to achieving what you want. This comes down essentially to your environment, and whilst it can mean some hard decisions to change our environment, we actually have a lot of control over it.

These two aspects - that we are subconsciously affected by our environment, no matter how much willpower we believe ourselves to have, and that we have much more control over our environment than we realise have been a key factor of some of the success I’ve had in the last few years.

In a TED talk titled “Information is food”, JP Rangaswami compared eating McDonald’s for 31 days, as in Supersize Me, to watching Fox News for 31 days. In essence, mainstream news is the fast food of information. There are much healthier types of information we can and should consume.

The opportunity cost of watching news

The other key thing that I think it can be easy to overlook, is what you could be doing in the time you are spending watching the news.

I remember as a kid, my parents always used to watch the 6 o’clock news. It became so ingrained, it was what would always happen at exactly 6pm, and if we didn’t watch it, we would surely miss out on something vital that could affect our lives.

As a teenager, over time I managed to gradually escape that more and more often. At first, I simply turned to something I enjoyed. I played games online in the evenings instead of sitting with my family and watching the news. The most interesting thing, however, is that my passion for gaming turned into a powerful hobby of learning to code, and I accredit this for a lot of my startup success.

Not only is watching news going to put an out of proportion amount of negative thoughts in your mind, which will affect what you can achieve, it is also valuable time where there are many amazing and meaningful things you could be doing:

Try a month off mainstream news

Abstaining from mainstream news has been one of the single best decisions I’ve made in the last two years for both my productivity and my happiness. If you’re still in a habit of watching or reading news, I strongly recommend you take Thomas Jefferson’s advice and try a month off news:

“I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.”

Do you read or watch mainstream news? Have you thought about stopping consuming it? Have you also given it up and felt better? I’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: Jon S

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ideocl4st
2847 days ago
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dshan
2848 days ago
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I'm three years since my last tv news report and local newspaper read. Barely touch mainstream at all; never miss a thing and constantly wonder why everyone is so stressed out. :)
San Francisco, CA
samuel
2849 days ago
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If you only hear bad news, everything starts to look like bad news.
Cambridge, Massachusetts
kazriko
2849 days ago
I no longer have a subscription to any TV traditional TV service, so my avoidance of television news is mostly just incidental. I also skip newspapers for the most part, and only get the news that's filtered through RSS. There's a bit of negative there, but not as much as the news.
joshuapoehls
2849 days ago
With this in mind, when will NewsBlur get sentiment filtering? ;)