Like many of us, I prefer to start my day with a very low-level experience of panic. The morning news report, which I scan within twenty minutes of my alarm going off, doesn’t trigger a genuine fight-or-flight response, but it does stir up those tiny feelings of unease, worry, frustration, and discontent that I need to get going. While I make the pot of morning coffee that will give me another required jolt, I pour over the headlines in the Associated Press, Washington Post (a reminder of home), Le Monde, the Atlantic, and the New York Times for signs of trouble in my external environment, however tenuously they might be connected to my person, in order to prepare for the worst, however unlikely it might be to actually occur.
The prehistoric forebears of my species were probably more fortunate in having larger predators to wake them up, while I only have reports about scattered pockets of white supremacists in the Midwest, terrorist cells, “active shooters”, a dysfunctional government south of the border (and in Ontario), and looming environmental devastation to worry about, all of which remain, thankfully, as distant from my daily experience as the dragon in a medieval chanson de geste, although perhaps serving basically the same function. Nearly everyone notes that news reports tend towards the alarming and dispiriting, of course, but few acknowledge that an obvious explanation for this is simply audience demand. We want to know they worst and tend to overemphasize the importance of bad news, however minor it might be, and as a species we’re pretty lousy at assessing risk; so, as a result, we wish to keep abreast of panic-inducing “warning signs” of threats to our own safety, while recognizing that other people with different viewpoints tend to freak out over every damned thing.
It becomes even more complicated when you have friends of differing political viewpoints on social media because they will keep you informed of minor threats from alternate dialectical positions. A baker thousands of miles away refuses to bake a cake for a marrying gay couple, who then take the matter to court, and your right-leaning friends sound the alarm that the state may soon be outlawing acts of religious conscience, while your left-leaning friends warn that discrimination is possibly going to be enshrined once more in the law. The possibility that neither of these outcomes will come to pass doesn’t get much play, while both sides proclaim the unlikelihood of what it is their alternates are worried about.
To a certain extent, of course, political tribalism is all about the people with whom you seek shelter. And, from a practical standpoint, environmental devastation is probably the most pressing issue we face collectively; unless, of course, it turns out to be societal collapse. Which is to say: not all threats are equal. Nevertheless, we seem to have an intrinsic desire to keep vigilantly aware of everything that might pose a threat to us, something I suspect isn’t far removed from the taste that some people (myself included) have for horror movies. In a sense, too, I suspect we prepare ourselves for our own mortality through the mediated deaths of others. The irony, however, is that high levels of stress actually pose a greater threat to our health than most of the things we insist on keeping cognizant about.
I remember once reading during the Bush administration that an alarmingly high percentage of Americans did not know the name of the Vice President and thinking that they were troublingly uninformed. Yet I couldn’t help wondering: if I remained oblivious to the existence of Dick Cheney until the end of days, would my life be better or worse?