Growing up in Toronto, there were lots of words that were often bandied about to describe the typical American: arrogant, innovative, generous, ignorant, friendly, insular, and many more — some unquestionably more flattering than others. But one description I never remember being invoked was “angry.”
Yet it’s hard to think of a word which is better suited to depict the average American temperament these days. Somehow, an ever-opinionated but fundamentally kind-hearted people have become transformed into a collection of bitter, irascible, clannish, overly sensitive creatures perpetually mired in a constant state of flinty irritation at “the other half” of the nation, inexplicably determined to spend their days hurling increasingly bitter ad hominem accusations at each other across a patently irreconcilable divide.
How, on earth, did we get here? And what can be done about it?
Well, I don’t pretend to have all the answers, of course. But one thing I emphatically reject is the claim that the present situation is either horrendously complicated to explain or somehow impossible to remedy.
It is, quite clearly, neither of those things. The present state of American dysfunctionality — for that’s really what it is, let’s not mince our words here — is the inevitable result of a media landscape that has been slowly and steadily demonizing “the other side” for decades (pick your side) so that “the news” has inevitably become transformed from “current affairs” or simply “what’s happening” to “how they are out to get you.”
The result, unsurprisingly enough, is that everything has become personal. After all, if you are convinced that those on “the other side” are somehow determined to ridicule you, or destroy your values, or indoctrinate your children, or bankrupt your economy, then why would you even bother to listen to anything that they might say in the first place? So you don’t. Instead, you turn to your clan, to your silo, to listen to the many others who will unhesitatingly line up to urge you not to waver, to be strong, to “defend your values.” It is, of course, so much more comfortable to be told that you’re right and your enemies must be summarily ignored, be they “coastal élites” or “uneducated bigots.”
So why would so many in the media do such a thing? Well, because it works. At a time when one of the very few things that all Americans would agree on is the phrase, “The country has not been more divided in recent memory,” it’s worth asking how the likes of CNN and Fox News are doing. The last time I checked, things seemed to be going pretty well for both of them, as well as many of the new players that are sprouting up to line up behind their respective “teams” in a frantic quest to “meet demand.”
But how are you doing? Tired? Nerves frayed? Enjoying being angry all the time? And ask yourself this: are you really, honestly, better informed than you were five years ago? Do you actually know anything more than you did then? Have you learned anything interesting? Has your curiosity been piqued in any new and intriguing directions? Or are you just angrier?
Because here’s the good news. There is actually lots out there to discover. There are thousands of simply amazing things that have been accomplished, that are very much worth paying attention to. To take but one very obvious example: In less than one year, we have gone from being faced with a global health crisis caused by an unknown virus to actually developing a spectrum of vaccines that effectively neutralizes it. That is, quite simply, nothing less than a stupendously mind-boggling accomplishment — something that would have been, quite literally, inconceivable a mere decade ago. How did we do it? What, exactly, did we do? What have we learned through this process? How might recent research impact a whole range of other issues in medical science by significantly deepening our understanding of the way the human immune system works?
Good questions, all. But good luck getting your “news” station to address them. Or, for that matter, even consider asking them. Instead, you’ll be told about how those idiotic “anti-vaxxers” are selfishly ruining it for everyone, or how your despotically inclined government is determined to infringe on your freedoms, or how some state governor is irresponsibly “playing with people’s lives” or how those who are not getting their second shot are “imperiling the economy.”
They will do their best, in other words, to keep you angry. Don’t let them.
Howard Burton’s latest book is “Exceptionally Upsetting: How Americans are increasingly confusing knowledge with opinion & what can be done about it.” He is the creator of Ideas Roadshow, which has produced over 100 books and videos with a wide range of experts across the arts and sciences (see here for a full listing). Before that he was the founding director of Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.