Sometimes on a Saturday evening in the winter months, when it was too cold to play outside or perform dangerous experiments in my secret underground laboratory disguised as our basement, the television would be left on and Hee Haw would catch my attention. I wasn’t old or wise enough to appreciate the music, but the skits were funny.
I remember one skit in particular. It went something like this: “Jack and me went to the circus. Jack got hit by a bowling pin. Jack and me got even with the circus. We bought a ticket but we didn’t go in!”
A futile gesture, no doubt, but that little verse came to mind recently on a wintry day when my current secret underground laboratory was short on dangerous experiments and long on tools that wanted sorting and items in need of repair. In the throws of procrastination, I failed to follow my own advice, and like an alcoholic who thinks he’s doing better because he’s “not drinking as much,” I took just a sip of social media.
It starts with a sip and then you come to hours later, tired and angry and your head hurts, thinking, “I just sat down; why is it dark outside?”
Back to the “circus.” We’ve been under the big top for at least a year, perhaps much longer, and everyone is mad at the circus and longing to get even with it. We’re outraged. We’re “fiery but mostly peaceful protest” mad. We’re storming the Capitol mad. We’re so mad that we just have to express our feelings, and everyone wants to hear about them. It makes us feel good to tell everyone how mad we are, and we know we’ll feel even better when our friends “like” our little tantrums and contribute their own. It’s good to be outraged at the bad people.
Of course, most of us are too busy to actually climb a wall, break a window or burn a neighborhood business, and those things are wrong, especially when they are done by people we don’t like, but we can push pixels from just about anywhere and at anytime, and feel righteous and united in our outrage against the bad people. Then the professional pixel pushers will gather up our contributions and repackage them with images of the people who were desperate or dumb enough to let their outrage take the wheel. Those people are relatively few in number, but the professionals will broadcast their antics over and over until everyone has a chance to see them, and express their outrage about them, which inspires more outrage and leads to more burning and breaking, which leads to more outrage.
It’s an effective business model, this self-perpetuating outrage circus, and it generates billions in revenue. The best part of it is that the people who traffic in outrage, politicians, pundits, media companies, news networks, social media platforms, apocalypse bloggers, don’t have to create or produce anything. They just have to do a bit of pixel herding, tweaking and manipulating, and it’s almost free money.
Left to our own devices, we’re easy marks. We’re wired for anger. It’s a survival mechanism rooted in the amygdala, the higher brain’s “Cousin Eddie” ( as in “Christmas Vacation”) who shows up at the most inopportune moments to embarrass the rest of the family.
A good portion of human history involves our efforts to overcome the influence of Cousin Eddie. Religion, philosophy and government are all necessary to help us cope with it, and to minimize the damage we do when we can’t cope. Civilization itself hinges on how successful our beliefs and institutions are in elevating our better angels over the fear and anger that can issue forth from those two little almond shaped clusters in our heads, and we’ve seen what devastation we can cause when they fail.
We’ve all heard the term “rageaholic,” and somewhere in the back of our heads where memories are stored, we remember that “some” people seem to be addicted to getting angry. Not us, though. We don’t go around shooting people on the freeway or destroying property or threatening government officials.
But hold on. If arson is the crime, is the one who strikes the match more guilty than the ones who carry fuel to the fire, or the ones who throw gasoline on it? After all, we’re about to impeach a president for allowing his own Cousin Eddie to take over his social media accounts. What about our contributions – the memes, the insults, the accusations and the name calling presented in the self righteous cause of partisan politics?
In our defense, as thin as that might be, one might say that we have an addiction. As it turns out, anger really can be addictive. Cousin Eddie is a pusher. He’s handing out neurotransmitters known as catecholamines, and little dime bags of dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline, and though we may hate ourselves in the morning, it feels good to feel bad, at least for a moment, so we do it again.
You might think we would be better off without these little brain buttons inherited from the dinosaurs, but our relationship with Cousin Eddie is more complicated than that. The amygdala is also involved in emotional learning and the process of forming memories. Which makes it prime territory for anyone who wants to manipulate us by feeding our addictions.
As it turns out, our righteous anger is about as valuable to the process of building a better world as Jack’s unused circus ticket. Where it does have value is in creating revenue for media giants, and for keeping us all so thoroughly distracted that we miss what’s happening to our economy and our national character right under our noses.