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I tend to read and watch more about politics than is good for me. Buddhism teaches that it is attachment which is the chief cause of our ills. Attachment to
a religion, a football team, money, prestige, power, material goods, pleasure, views, beliefs,
a woman to a worthless man, and – whenever the electoral climate warms up – our political beliefs.
This is despite the fact that much of what appears on our screens is vacuous: political gaffes, ministerial announcements, Tweets, celebrity talk. Totally useless, insignificant, out-of-context information that changes absolutely nothing. We read about events, see them on the news, get angry and emotional, and the next day it starts all over again. We wallow in swamps of worthless data with only anger and frustration to show for it. And all the while, the serious stuff gets concealed from us. What will affect our lives and those of our children for the next ten or 50 years gets swept under the rug.
In 2017, Dutch researchers looked at the effect of hard and soft news exposure on mental wellbeing. They published their results in the Journal of Media Psychology 29 .
A typical news bulletin like the one I watched – you too, probably – last night will have a terrorist attack, an episode of domestic violence, a murder, possibly
a police shooting, the number of current Covid-19 infections, a poor
health story, children in detention, misbehaviour by officials in high public office, corruption.
All evoking feelings of anger, fear and regret. After the news you might watch a bulletin of current affairs, including perhaps an extract from the first American presidential candidates’ debate.
If all that leaves you feeling somewhat less than joyful, the Dutch researchers would add you to their list of those who react similarly. They established that people who watched a news bulletin suffered a measurable loss in wellbeing as a consequence, and that, if we had negative feelings about politics as well as a sense of powerlessness, this interfered with “the fuel of happiness, which is love”.
Social scientists have been studying online dating services, and find that political views are as important as education levels in the choice of a romantic partner. One’s parents’ views are also affective, and becoming more so as politics becomes more partisan. According to Gallup, in 1958, 33% of parents who were Democrats wanted their daughters to marry a Democrat; 25% of Republican parents wanted their daughters to marry a Republican. Not so in recent years.
Those numbers rose to 60 and 63% respectively in 2016. And they’re probably even higher in 2020.
The Trump election, the most divisive in modern US politics, took a personal toll on both sides of the Democrat/Republican divide. Families fractured, relationships ruptured, and years later “emotional wounds are as raw as ever and show few signs of healing”, as Reuters reported in a 2017 article titled “From disputes to a breakup: wounds still raw after US election”.
A Reuters poll shows the number of respondents who argued with family and friends over politics jumped six percentage points from a pre-election poll at the height of the campaign in October to 39%.
I was once at a dinner party where a friend discovered his partner of 20 years had, unbeknown to him, always voted for the party which to him was anathema. His jaw dropped and his mouth stayed open for the balance of the meal. The marriage foundered soon after.
I no longer watch the news with any expectation of enlightenment or relief. The rolling cuts to ABC funding are most reflected in the quality of its evening news bulletin, which now seems to be devoted to the pursuit of ratings, another form of the race to the bottom which permeates so much of contemporary social commentary. I now read the news on my phone, as opposed to the piecemeal ingestion of it through TV. It’s less immersive and the off switch is always handy.
John Fleming II
Having an (unqualified) opinion
“Social media is just a faster way to gossip,” I said. “We all know that gossiping is (mostly) bullying.”
That was my contribution to a recent conversation about personal comments on social media.
“Oh yes! That’s clever. That’s true. I wish I had said that,” gushed the woman at the library.
It did occur to me to paraphrase (inside my head) an old riposte attributed to James McNeill Whistler in conversation with Oscar Wilde: “You will, dear, you will.”
Wilde was known for his acerbic wit and fast repartee, often delivered crushingly to fans or acolytes, who may have been unaware they were being put down.
Having an opinion is common.
We all have one. Social media is making it easier for us to air it, often instantly, meaning the response is usually not deeply considered, if at all.
Opinions may be sought, often on silly, salacious scuttlebutt or unadulterated gossip. Usually we shouldn’t have an opinion on
a subject if we don’t know the facts. If those who comment about some celebrity get their knowledge from an unreliable website, usually second, third or one-hundredth hand, then they are throwing petrol on the flames. Many people’s opinions are derived from the last person who told them what to think, so they are likely to spread misinformation. If all we have to do is click ‘like’ or add a brief comment, there usually isn’t much time for study or consideration of the topic in hand. People often read others’ comments and respond, resulting in a chain of opinions leading further and further away from the point, the origin of the statement, and any fact of the matter.
Wait ’til you are asked
Once upon a time, usually as one was leaving childhood and entering the world of grown-ups, it was flattering to be asked one’s opinion, especially if the response was listened to, evaluated, and responded to. But conversations are better if they are two-way. Social media is not so much
a two-way conversation as a verbal or keyboard offload – the great rubbish heap of life’s opinions. It breeds pathogens of dislike and nastiness.
The lure of clickbait
I don’t even go on social media, but instead I get sucked in by spurious headlines on news and information sites. They are usually a waste of time, and I often feel cranky for having been lured in by an intriguing headline or photo, even when the topic doesn’t interest me.
A recent example was a headline about what the wives and girlfriends were wearing at the Brownlow medal count. I’m not interested in football or WAGs, but I was once interested in fashion.
A story by Melissa Singer in the Age was headlined, “It wasn’t your average Brownlow, but that didn’t stop the glamour”. I was enticed to click through to a photo gallery showed a succession of pretty young women, one or two wearing white garb, but mostly baring metres of flesh and wearing tonnes of makeup.
Another increasingly common sight on the red carpet is a woman standing unnaturally with one foot in front of the other, looking confident. This is supposed to be a glamourous pose, designed to emphasise curves and accentuate the style of the garment, but it looks awkward. How many hours of practising in front of a full-length mirror – to stand and smile and not topple over – have gone into this ridiculous pose?
What do you think? Like, dislike or don’t care? See how easy it is to get sucked in? You don’t even have to be qualified to comment.
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