We are told to worry about things. The hurricanes in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico. The events in Charlotte. Football players and the national anthem. The effects of climate change. North Korea’s nuclear threats. Immigration.

Not only are we told what to worry about, but we are also told how to prioritize our worries. One week we should worry about climate change, another about racial inequality.

Around the time that the March for Science was in the news, I had several deadlines on my plate as well as some volunteer and family obligations that left me with little time to worry about the latest happenings in Washington. However, because I have a background in science, several acquaintances assumed that I had passionately followed the media accounts as they did, and that I was just as incensed as they were over the issues. The truth was I just did not have the time or emotional capital to 1) follow the minute-by-minute commentary in the news, and 2) come up with an opinion on the matter.

There was a part of me that felt guilty for not being informed for those two weeks, as though it meant that I hated Science. I had the same guilty feeling when Charlotte was in the news and social media was alight with opinions. Or the on-going saga regarding immigration. The prevailing sentiment on social media admonished people to consider “What are you going to do about it?” 

If I was honest with myself, I really wasn’t going to do anything differently than I had before. The headlines tell us to feel guilt over what is happening in places we’ve never been, involving people that we’ve never met, and over things that many of us do not fully understand. Whether we work to eliminate racial inequality or to welcome refugees at a local level does not seem to absolve us from needing to do more, or at least to worry more. It implies that being merely concerned is not enough.

In reality, unless it is your job to stay abreast of the latest news, few of us have the time or emotional capital to react to every issue that happens on a week-to-week basis. Furthermore, most people do not have the time to verse themselves on the ins and outs of every issue.

Instead we are told how we supposed to feel about big issues and how we are supposed to interpret weekly events. The rhetoric goes something like “If you care about [important issue], then you must care about [local/minor/weekly event].” This formula gives every event an immediacy and priority that it may not otherwise merit.

Collective anxiety

One thing I noticed about this rhetorical formula was that it sounded a lot like anxiety. I had recently read Can’t. Just. Stop. by Sharon Begley for an article (for MercatorNet). The book addresses what compulsions are, going beyond the clinical kind like obsessive-compulsive disorder and discussing how we turn to compulsions to deal with anxiety over things we cannot control.

Get on Twitter and Facebook, and you get an idea of what collective anxiety really means. It means, join me in my passionate fight against this hegemony. It means worry about this with me, whatever “this” may be. Being merely concerned seems uncaring. To worry is to care.

Anxiety is not a “slow” mental state. It is frenetic. The news cycle moves so fast, that last month’s hurricanes seem like an eternity ago because we’ve already moved on to NFL players’ protests, which was followed by the Las Vegas shooting. There is no opportunity to assess, to learn about the issues at hand, or to make decisions on what issues you will follow and which ones you will not.

While trying to formulate my thoughts on this, I came across Julie Beck’s article in The Atlantic, “Constant anxiety won’t save the world”. Beck spoke with several experts on obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. She reports that people will often obsess over the thing that they fear, and to help them deal with it, they will talk (or post) about their fears. Many people deal with anxiety by recruiting others to share in their fretting.

One expert Beck talked to, Scott Woodruff, the director of the anxiety and obsessive-compulsive treatment program at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, said that worrying can provide an illusion of control and that many people conflate anxiety with action. This seems to be a kind of compulsive response to events most people can do nothing about.

Where her article was most helpful was in addressing where the sense of guilt comes in:

“Part of the problem is that people feel that they should be worried—that worrying is a good and productive thing to do. And then they log in to Twitter or Facebook, and see their friends and others they admire reinforcing that message: Yes, you should be worried. And if you’re not, what’s wrong with you?”

Furthermore, Woodruff says that sometimes people equate worry and anxiety with nobility, that if you are good person then you will worry about important things. However, as the title of Beck’s article suggests, worrying over something does not change it. While fears over world events may cause anxiety, stoking the flames of that anxiety will no more change the outcome than do the rituals a person with OCD performs to prevent his fears from happening.

To be fair, some people point to the advantages of hyper-vigilant language. For one, many people use it for fund-raising. For another, it can serve to wake people out of a stupor when they’ve grown accustomed to certain abuses. But these tactics tend to only produce short-term gain. Furthermore, they only “work” when we are not constantly bombarded with the latest doom-and-gloom story. When everything is horrible, resignation sets in.

Fragmented, incoherent news

Identifying that we engage in collective anxiety helped me understand how we interact with and respond to the news cycle. But, it did not quite explain why this interaction is the way it is. To understand this, I turned to two philosophers whose writing barely pre-dated the wide-spread use of the internet.

The first was Neil Postman, whose book Amusing Ourselves to Death, written in 1985, has proven to be even more relevant as the television age morphed into the internet age. He unpacks for his readers how we came to consume our news as we do today—in non-contextualized fragments.

Before there was television, there was the telegraph. The telegraph made it possible to send and retrieve information across long distances relatively quickly. Then along came television that gave us visual symbols rather than written information. The internet, in a way, is a combination of both by giving us immediate information like the telegraph and passive visual consumption like television.

The telegraph allowed someone in Seattle to know what was happening in New York. Eventually, it also allowed communication across the Atlantic. Notably, the Associated Press was founded only two years after Henry Morse sent his first telegraph from Baltimore to Washington DC.

According to Postman, for the first time people had an “information glut.” They were reading headlines about events that were happening across the U.S. and Europe. However, most people could do nothing about these events. The most they could do is offer opinions in the form of public opinion polls, which are then converted in to a news item that no one can do anything about. Postman refers to this as “a great loop of impotence.” 

Today posting on social media provides an additional outlet to the opinion polls. The news elicits an opinion, for which you can do nothing, so you give yourself the sense of doing something by posting that opinion on social media.

In one sense, we can tell ourselves that social media is different. You never know who might read your Facebook post, or Tweet, or Instagram caption. Perhaps it will go viral and make a difference? For most of us, however, only a narrow circle of peers will read our social media posts, and statistically they are more likely to agree with your views than not.

In many ways social media only serves to enhance the feeling of impotence because you are bombarded with anxiety-fueled, emotionally-laden calls for action but without anywhere to direct that anxious energy.

Furthermore, social media serves to further de-contextualize the news. We receive snippets of news that we are supposed to find important, because it is news after all, but we are not told why. Again, the advent of the telegraph can help us understand this. Postman says that the telegraph legitimized context-free information,

“We may say then that the contribution of the telegraph to public discourse was to dignify irrelevance and amplify impotence. But this is not all: Telegraphy also made public discourse essentially incoherent.”

Postman died before Twitter confined news-worthy information to 140 characters that is distributed in an endless stream of headlines with each one having nothing to do with the previous one. Yet, Twitter is the epitome of the kind of incoherence Postman describes in chapters on the news. In 30 seconds we can scroll through our Twitter feed to find the number of deaths from the latest mass shooting, the latest baseball score, whether stocks are up or down, and the cutest cat video.

Emotivism drives discourse

Since fragmented news is necessarily divorced from its context, others have taken the liberty to provide the context for us. This is where the formula, “if you care about [important issue], then you must care about [local/minor/weekly event]” comes in. All events are placed within the context of an issue. Sometimes that issue is dependent upon which decade you are living in. An event such as a shooting could be placed in the context of gun violence, or mental health, or anarchy.

Perhaps an event rightly belongs within the context in which the media or political pundits have placed it. Perhaps it does not. That matters less than the effect of putting the event within that context. The second of the prescient philosophers I’ve found useful is Alastair MacIntyre, who describes this type of discourse as emotivism.

Emotivism says that there are no objective standards, there are only preferences. This means there is no way to evaluate whether the context of an event is correct because, according to emotivism, it is just one person’s interpretation butting up against another person’s interpretation. Discourse becomes less about approaching truth, and more about getting you on my side. And, since “truth” is determined by consensus, then the more people on my side, the more it legitimizes my position.

This brings us back to the sense of guilt for not worrying about every issue we are told to worry about. MacIntyre says that the problem with emotivist discourse is that it blurs the lines between manipulative and non-manipulative interactions. Massive guilt trips become a powerful way to get others to feel that they should invest emotional capital in a particular issue and they should worry about the same things you are worried about. After all, if they cared, they would worry.

These three things, recognizing collective anxiety, unpacking the history of the news cycle, and understanding emotivist discourse, helped me to get off the current event merry-go-round and re-gain my equilibrium.

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer with advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics. She writes on the intersection of science, culture, and technology.