An ancient Greek legend has a player of a reed instrument challenge Apollo to a contest of who the best player is, Apollo on his lyre or Marsyas on his aulos. Long story short, Marsyas loses and according to the most popular interpretation of the legend, Apollo actually skins the fellow alive as punishment. A ridiculously brutal and psychotic finish to what would otherwise be a little amusement. Normally the lesson being taught with this tale is that of hubris. It’s a mistake to overrate your skills, especially if you were to compare them to the skills of the gods. Why exactly isn’t explained. What we learn is that the gods are remarkably flawed even by human standards. Why should a god be particularly worried about what a mortal has to say? Is there really any harm that can be done? If a child challenges us to a contest are we so outraged by the hubris that we should torture them to death?
The story, it seems to me, is more about the pettiness of indignation. Indignation is that seemingly just outrage that is nearly addictive to us. Sometimes it is just. Occasionally it is righteous indignation. But, as with so many things, there should be something of a cap on how much indignation you indulge in. After all, too much of a good thing degrades the treat. If you’re someone who obviously loves to throw a tantrum every time something goes even slightly awry or you discover a mistake by someone other than yourself, you run the risk of coming across like a captious buffoon. It won’t be long before people aren’t listening to your complaining anymore. Choose your outrageous carefully. Unleashing torrents of frustrated anger at Trump’s spelling errors, for example, while enjoyable, and covfefe very amusing, leaves you somewhat depleted when he pulls funding for the WHO. Are these things in scale? Should our indignation be on ten all the time?
It’s a very alluring problem, as our neurobiology rewards anger. Dopamine is released in the same way gambling or exciting sports activities or, indeed, some drug use does. Anger is an addictive emotion. Unfortunately the results of frequent displays of angry outrage are typically negative, which often leads to more anger and more isolation until the addict is dealing with a problem that is difficult to remedy.
Social media is a very enjoyable place to unleash massive amounts of indignation. We have push-button access to slews of information, “news” and other remarks that can be used to trigger our emotions. The rewards to outrage are fast diminishing however and frequently folks paint themselves into corners of choler and frustration that are difficult to return from. Friends and family can be collateral damage and ultimately the reward for the outburst was fleeting. It becomes a game, but the loss in terms of accountability and trustworthiness may be unrecoverable, friendships may be permanently ruined over an outburst that is out of proportion with actual sober even useful response.
For example, imagine a situation brought to you by subscription news agencies about an individual wrongly accusing someone of a different ethnicity of criminality. It is easy to to feel too much involvement with the story as it’s possible that it’s already part of several friends’ daily postings. You might play a bit of catch-up and only read the headline, maybe just skim the actual event. And maybe we indulge our fantasies, if it were us, what would we do? After all if we let actual justice run its course, our cynical motors kick in, what real differences will it make? We howl and rage and talk about ass-kicking, and when someone deigns to tell us to calm down, well they’re obviously just racist dumbasses who need a beating, and unleashing that beating feels so damned good. Almost like it accomplished something, almost like you actually got to participate in that fantasy of being there and instantly making the right decision to pull a trigger of some kind on the offender(S).
All real outrages are only flamed by reasonable discourse that attempts to disarm the impending explosion of indignation. If you don’t feel the roaring hatred and apoplectic fury I’m feeling, we commonly imagine, then you’re probably one of the enemy. And, you’ll do as I unleash my frustration and reams of righteousness. Even when it’s stated over and over that our target is on our side, and actually voted the same way you did last election, and, maybe even, does a bit more socially than you actually do to further progress in the correct vein. So what, we’re angry, let’s crotch kick them in lieu of an actual enemy!
How often are we witness to our actual enemies? It’s quite rare, and truthfully these 24/7 news agencies are flooding us with the events we aren’t party to, but can feel our connection to. There are bad cops, and bad bankers, and rotten foolish kids, looters, arsonists, car jackers who carelessly slam the stolen vehicle dangerously into people on the highway (this one I did actually experience myself, but the perp would never be caught). It’s easy to roll these things into a world view of fear and disgust. Why ever leave your house? Rapists and thieves abound. They will stick you with dirty needles. They’ll slip Rohypnol into your drinks. They’ll use your pets in Satan worship. On it goes, the long laundry list of our society’s horrors both fictional and factual, overhyped and underplayed, but our cynical engines keep them all burning in the furnaces of our cynical indignation.
How do we slow the rage? How do we step back from the industry that makes its money selling us these stories? Is there a healthy amount of “being informed”? Is there a healthy amount of expressed indignation? After all if we’re not outraged by some of our societies clear transgressions of ethics and decency how can we go about working toward proper changes?
- Be scientific. Do not accept the stories without proper evidence. Independent and respected corroboration is necessary for things to be actually known. Don’t trust the lone wolf agent who insists that only they have the real scoop. It does occasionally happen, but it’s not valuable until it can be properly corroborated.
- Understand Statistics. You don’t have to be a PhD, or even understand them thoroughly, but understand what means are, and how they can be manipulated with a few “outliers” and that knowing the standard deviation allows you to see how much the samples differ. Always check the sample size, an N of 1 is NOTHING but an entertaining anecdote.
- Understand that certain urban legends will never go away. They are too delicious a story, and every generation will get a version that is just too titillating to let go of. Spiders will be biting stewardesses bottoms on airplanes and killing them, Nieman Marcus will be overcharging for cookie recipes, and silly people will be coming back from Mexico with cleverly shaved rats that the purchasers will imagine are fancy Chihuahuas. None of this crap ever happened as best as we can tell, and that’s all.
- A common phrase is, “It can’t be proved either way”. It’s wrong. It’s actually a logical impossibility to attempt to disprove something. You can’t prove the Olympic Gods (or Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy) don’t exist. Why not? Well what evidence would you examine? Without evidence of the Olympic Gods there is no proof FOR them. (In the case of the Tooth Fairy many teeth are mysteriously turned to quarters, so we employ Parsimony or Occam’s Razor coming up next) This is the burden of proof. You make a sensational claim, you are required to support it. Remember that the Flying Spaghetti Monster can’t be disproved but because there is no such thing as “disproof” only proof, we await the evidence to examine. Don’t get hooked into that falsehood.
- Parsimony (or Occam’s Razor) is the idea that all else being equal the simplest explanation is best. This is famously expressed as “when you hear the hooves of horses, there’s nothing to suggest you should be expecting Unicorns”. Conspiracy theorists are the worst offenders of this postulate, too often piling on the excuses and hand-waving until all the details needed for Obama to be making frogs gay with chemicals would fill a library. It doesn’t mean it’s not true, is simply means it’s very suspect, and extremely unlikely when the more obvious reality, the simpler explanation for the evidence is the one that doesn’t include so much reliance on that much hot air.
- Understand that many of your favorite beliefs may not actually be reality. Understand that many people accept a caring universe and the possibility of an afterlife, not because we have evidence for it, but because we’d like it to be a reality. Our emotional connection to things we’ve grown up thinking, and were possibly passed to us by preferred loved ones aren’t necessarily true. And it’s important that we learn to question ourselves with introspection. It’s a skill that many don’t learn, so start practicing.
I’ll wrap this up here. Employ some of the above tactics in your day to day life, and try to wrangle anger and cynicism. Grow some flowers and tell someone you love how you feel. Put on some favorite music or a movie, and chill. This isn’t giving up. It’s being rational with your life and your time. And take note that the black bird-watcher, who had the police called on him recently by an indignant white woman asked to leash her dog, is not pleased with her life being ripped to shreds by this one rash act. And that the elderly Native American drummer who was being faced down last year by arrogant high schoolers did not exercise his righteous indignation at their misbehavior. Keep it in mind.