Mining outrage: The case for building skills

This past election was a much bigger surprise to me than any other. According to the media (at least the ones that reach me), it shouldn’t have been a close race at all – but 74 million Americans to 70 million Americans hardly constitutes the landslide win that was forecast in all of the major media outlets. I take this shock as evidence of a further descent into the rabbit hole of my own private echo chambers, which I thought I had woken up from four years ago already and was well forewarned about. Mostly I think I was angry about not hearing the voices and reasons of 70 million Americans who voted for Trump. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that almost all of mainstream media shares a very monochromatic narrative when it comes to Donald Trump. And despite this, 70 million Americans found reasons to vote for him – this is not a fringe group or a minority of extreme right-wingers. This constitutes an enormous chunk of middle-of-the-road America. The fact that these reasons haven’t been thoroughly discussed and addressed in mainstream public forums is a true failing of modern journalism. People have been saying for years that the media leans left, and for the first time, I felt them leaning so hard that they fell off their game. The absolute lack of real issues and important ideas being discussed has made it clear to me that we have to learn to rely on our own conversation skills and abilities to “reach across the aisle” to encounter people whose ideas don’t completely resemble our own. The sad fact is that serious discussions – namely anything political – has been off the table in American households for many years, because the tone gets too heated too quickly. Does it need to be so? Do we need to have these emotional knee-jerk reactions in conversation? How did we get here?

I am recently discovering the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt who has been studying the increasing moral divide in America for over a decade now. This short TED-talk he gave in 2009 is a great summary of his work on studying why we divide into groups the way we do:

I’ve started reading his book from 2013 “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religions” to understand the divisiveness a little more, and only a few chapters in I absolutely recommend it.

I am also convinced that the exacerbation of our current outrage culture has only contributed to the problem. There have been many studies in recent years about how technology companies and the algorithms they employ feed off of our outrage and encourage the generation of low-quality, click-bait material. Tristan Harris talks about this problem in depth in his documentary “The Social Dilemma.”

Apart from practicing my own communication skills and taming that knee-jerk “outrage” reaction, I believe that developing a skill of any kind – be it in music, martial arts or sports – is an excellent way of training our “instant gratification muscles.” Instead of giving in to that trigger of outrage and clicking that next thing in the feed, we learn through developing a skill to distance ourselves from the first frustration of failing, of not achieving instant mastery. By practicing a skill, we encounter inadequacy on a daily basis and learn to not succomb to the sometimes overwhelming despair that results from the realization that we are not instantly capable. The master knows that she will not succeed by dumb luck, but rather by rigorous, disciplined practice. The road to mastery is a decision we don’t make just once, but daily. And it is a bumpy road. But we as humans must keep choosing to walk it if we don’t want to succomb to being the puppet of a tech industry that continually incentivizes triggering our outrage. Now, more than ever, in the era of instant access to information or experiences, it is vital to keep flexing our mental muscles through the honing of a skill, because skills are still one thing that we can’t attain instantly (as well as deeper knowledge and understanding). For this reason I decided to launch a new project encouraging people who love to sing to sing more by singing with me in “The E-Flat Files”:

Let’s hone our skills. Let’s practice conversations without outrage. This seems to me to be more important than ever, because as Bret Weinstein and Douglas Murray discussed in this very in-depth, well thought-through podcast on the situation in America today, we need BOTH sides of the aisle to keep us from running off either deep end. They make the very good point that we know this phenomenon in ourselves as individuals very well: sometimes we really want something, but our brains remind us that we can’t afford it or it’s not healthy, etc. At the level of the individual, it works very well – why can’t this translate to embracing the model for an entire society?