Adrenaline feels good. At a minimum, it’s the result of a [hopefully good] cup of coffee. Or bungee-jumping, skydiving or crossing a too-busy street. Or simply sharing good times with friends, family or fans, be it at a holiday or special event.
Or, it could be a suspense or horror movie. But here’s where we begin treading on treacherous ground. Where do we use that extra energy boost when we’re simply sitting alone watching a screen full of fear-inducing images, sounds and voices? Like on our television or computer? When the message that you should be afraid of people and events you can’t control is repeated often enough it becomes an audience worldview. Two quotes come to mind, each rooted in World War II:
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught… [Rogers & Hammerstein, South Pacific, 1949]
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” [Joseph Goebbels]
Have we learned anything from the last century? Or do we still allow our adrenaline to be charged and directed by people and businesses who profit from our exaggerated and usually unfounded fears?
While we no longer live in a Father Knows Best society [did we ever?], most advertising still promises a new, improved and better life of some sort. But when we listen to radio stations full of fear-mongering talk we find advertisers telling their audience how to protect themselves and their precious stuff from over-exaggerated enemies or situations. This constant barrage of adrenaline and fear-inducing commentary isn’t limited to talk radio. We find it on the nostalgia side of the dial, as well. The same advertisers know that the same people who prefer formats that promote a glowing, peaceful, once-upon-a-time past that never existed can be sold on solutions to today’s chaos that confuses and overwhelms them. [And wouldn’t you feel confused and overwhelmed if you were a paycheck away from missing your car and house payments and seeing your family and retirement dreams sent to the gutter?]
The adrenaline trigger? It’s nearly always an unidentifiable or uncontrollable “other” or “them”.
Television news isn’t much better, when it shows how powerless people are and villainizing those who take part in the political or civic process. When insecure, couch-sitting adults are energized like a three-year old on a sugar jag, where does their energy go? Wherever it’s directed by good propagandists. Even when violent crime rates fall, the “action news” stations continue their coverage. A reporter illuminated by flashing police lights standing in front of crime scene tape is more interesting than one interviewing a city counselor about a zoning issue. And, since crime and violence stories don’t require much preparation or analysis, they’re cheaper to produce, too.
In the broadcast business, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Audience surveys show that stories of crime and violence increase viewership. Stations promoting themselves as sources of family friendly “good news” have seen their audiences shrink. Shrinking audiences mean shrinking revenue. Activated audiences are also more responsive to advertising messages.
The things we need to do to create a civil society with civil discourse are boring and usually don’t generate much audience or adrenaline. Don’t believe me? Start spending time in planning commission and city council meetings wherever you live. If you’re lucky, the occasional sparks that wake people up aren’t issues that will disturb your peace.
Some people divorce themselves from the civic process for their own peace of mind. I’ve run into a fair number of people who recommend a “news fast”. For the most part, these are people who already have a full plate – and many of the people they recommend this tactic to are somewhat oversensitive to their environments.
Does this withdrawal of intelligent, sensitive and caring people from the public dialogue contribute to the polarization of our society?
Yeats reminded us, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Other people, feeling powerless, leave the system, but glory in conspiracy theories instead of the science, research and facts that usually explain things. I don’t see dropping out in frustration or disgust as an answer. But it takes a special kind of individual with a special kind of tenacity to mobilize tired, disgusted, frustrated people against the power of corporate and news media propaganda. Sure, it can be done for a brief shining moment, but can it be sustained over the longer period of time it takes to win? Corporate personhood is the result of decades of case law pushed by lawyers working for Nineteenth Century robber barons. And much of today’s automobile safety stems from decades of activism by the monk-like Ralph Nader.
Can everyday people make a difference when they have neither the time, energy nor knowledge to sell their souls to a cause that requires total surrender of family and all other personal responsibilities?
I don’t know. Revolutions tend to start from the middle class, because the lower classes are too busy trying to survive to take to the streets or courtrooms. The American middle class is vanishing. While America is brilliant at recovering from disasters it could have prevented, I don’t see the change we need in the near future. Am I wrong? I hope so.