First in a series of articles on Media and The American Psyche.
A while back a friend told me about a graffiti artist in New York City who'd been covering subway and building walls with a simple declarative statement: Stop shopping and start thinking! This is particularly interesting since we are now approaching the season to shop and shop and shop and shop. It also made me wonder what he was suggesting we actually think about. And perhaps more importantly, what we were doing instead of thinking.
So, more than half-way across the country, I went into town and I spent a day watching people. I observed them on the street, in stores, in restaurants, on television, at gas stations. A typical group of young people (anywhere from approximately 10 years of age to 20) walked in much the same way a school of herring swim, in a huddle, somehow sensing one another's movements, veering left, then right without much in the way of verbal communication because every one of them was either wearing an iPod or had a cell phone planted on one ear.
What I noticed overall, regardless of age group, was that the more crowded the environment and stimulating the situation, the less interpersonal the interaction between us. People distracted by brightly lit window displays or by robotic massage chairs or hundred-foot long displays of plasma television screens had very little to do with one another, even if they were "together." Many walked about with glazed eyes and slightly open mouths, trance-like. I am not aware of any research to validate or refute this observation, but it is what I saw.
So, the graffiti artist who bade us to start thinking must have been seeing more or less what I saw -- a world rapidly becoming disconnected and insensate from the onslaught of stimulation that is part and parcel of modern life.
It's no secret that telecommunications have changed the world in which we live. There's more information, more excitement, more scandal, more sensory overload and more crisis than ever before. Seventy-five years ago in a small town, you could spend a whole day, a whole week without knowing much more than the day or week before.
Big things -- like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the death of a neighbor or the arrival of the new doctor-- made themselves known quickly enough. And people responded as necessary. They enlisted in the army or paid their respects or went for an exam as need be. But there were long periods of time that were left unfilled.
Not that there was nothing to do. There was always plenty to do. But it was plenty of one thing or maybe two, like getting the field plowed or fixing the roof, or going to work and coming home, not lists of 20, 30 or 40 things to do. Our ancestors were different in many ways, but perhaps the most significant distinction is that they had a lot less information to manage in one bite and a lot less to worry about. Crises happened, but they happened rarely. Now, crisis is constant. The critical state is the nominal one.
Managing Terror: The Price of Over-Stimulation and Viral Fear
We live in a very quiet section of New Mexico. I can remember vividly how people responded when I told them I was moving out of one of the most intellectually and culturally intense metropolitan areas in the world and that I'd be a living about a half hour out of the nearest city with only Indian reservation and mountains between.
Almost all of them asked, "But what'll you do? It'll be so quiet!"
"Precisely," I replied.
The quiet was what I wanted, a quiet so deep that I could hear each star blink to life as it filled the sky at night, or locate barn owls from the sound of their wings opening as they swooped off my roof after field mice, or the harrumph of the sun as it lifted itself lazily over the horizon in the morning. I'd had enough of city and suburban living with its endless traffic jams and movie lines and white noise.
I told a friend that I thought it was the speed of urban life that had pushed me over the edge. Everything was always so fast and my nature was to respond to that. Interestingly, he suggested that it wasn't just the speed that was the problem. He said it was the overall level of stimulation.
Speed is only one part of a world that is spinning us out of control. On top of being pounded through all five senses, we are increasingly pressured on a psychological level: pseudo-intimacy, over-exposure (both physical and emotional), intensity, frustration, pressure to complete multiple tasks simultaneously, complexity and confusion of social expectations, and fluidity of social roles. It comes to this: We don't know precisely what we are supposed to do or be, but we're supposed to do and be a lot of it.
In becoming technologically connected, the world has not only become smaller it has become more forceful, pressing in on us in our cars, our bedrooms, our bathrooms and worst of all, in the most private parts of our minds. Our brains are being altered, perhaps irrevocably.
And nothing changes the brain quite the way fear does. It has even been suggested by Bruce Lipton, a cellular biologist, that violence and fear can alter DNA. In brain scan studies, they have found that with persistent exposure to discordant and fearful stimuli distinct changes occur in the limbic system, particularly the amygdala. In simple terms, it gets bigger as the executive portions of the brain responsible for judgment and planning become smaller. If the evolutionists are right (and I both doubt and pray they are not), then it seems we are rapidly becoming lizards.
Fear has become so embedded in our culture we no longer notice it as fear. We see it as thrill. One Walt Disney theme park -- a place that was created as a small paradise for children and an escape for the young at heart -- now boasts a ride called The Tower of Terror. Can you imagine? "Daddy, after we see Mickey Mouse can we go on the terror ride?" How do you fit those two things together? I don't think they were made to go together, especially in children.
The Addicted American
Americans have always been a brave, brazen group. While most of us are religious or at least spiritual and the vast majority are incredibly generous, we are also a culture of iconoclasts and take some delight in upsetting the old order of things, splitting open the delicately jeweled egg just to see what's inside, racing across a forbidden continent to see who can get to the rocky coastline first.
Consider that sort of person, the individual with those qualities. Now consider that individual over time as there are fewer and fewer old orders to overthrow, fewer and fewer gods to shatter against temple walls. The energy of that person, the forces at work in him have not been changed and as a result they must find some other outlet.
When we run out of continent, we must conquer space. When we run out of new fun, we must generate danger. We have become a nation of thrill addicts unable to be still or just be. So what do we do? I think we do what our graffiti artist said. We stop thinking and we shop. We are compelled to consume. And how do corporate interests stimulate this? With fear. (If we don't buy X or Y, we will be social outcasts, in terrible danger, at risk for derision or disease.)
Thrill and Fear
Thrill and fear are kissing cousins. And in many ways our thrill seeking (whether that's insane roller-coaster rides that test the laws of physics or bungee jumping or staying glued to entertainment TV to stay informed about the latest scandal) is a defense against the constant pressure and fear we are fed by a media that is in our lives 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
By going to horror movies, by subscribing to the Fear Channel, by watching beheadings on the internet, we have found ways to manage our terror at a distance, to experience fear in controllable milieus so we can convince ourselves that we have some broader control in the world. It is delusional. And in a world filled with conflicts only a trigger finger away from an international conflagration, this is also terribly risky.
Fear That Won't Stop: What That Means to a Country at War
Soldiers stand at the front line of modern fear cultures. While they take the worst of it for us, presumably they are also more prepared for the exigencies of battle and taught to be what is termed "stress hardy."
In many cases, this is true. Soldiers can do their tours of duty and return suffering less emotional damage than most civilians would experience under similar circumstances. However, a large and growing number of our soldiers are returning with incapacitating post-traumatic stress disorder, which, loosely explained, is a syndrome of chronically acute fear.
Chronic and acute are usually mutually exclusive, but in this case we see them bonded, and that is in fact the pathology -- an intense fear that simply will not go away. It is as if the off switch has been removed. But what these soldiers offer us in their awful suffering is the ability to see in crystalline form what is going on in us at a broader, more subtle cultural level.
When fear is relentless, several things happen to us: We lose judgment, we become insensate, our startle response is either grossly diminished or harshly exaggerated, we are stuck in arousal, we can't recognize safety signals (the cues that tell us when we don't have to be scared anymore), we're always on guard or conversely we're fearless when we shouldn't be and because of our numbness engage in stunts of increasing risk, we are unable to sleep and walk through our days with a sense of impending doom. We become irrational. We lose conscious control of our responses. We startle easily and simultaneously lose a necessary and rational responsiveness. We freeze.
Characteristics of Good Soldiers
If I were building an army, I would look for certain qualities in my servicemen and women. I would want them neither terrified nor inured, neither overly zealous (sic: murderous) nor bored. I would be horrified if I were a commander and had to stand before a battalion of men and women whose eyes were glazed over and whose expressions revealed minds that had gone dark.
Rather, I would look to recruit individuals who could think clearly and quickly, who were motivated more by honor and courage than benumbed fearlessness or thrill-seeking. I would not be averse to seeing some fear. All good soldiers and their commanders are sometimes afraid. But they do what must be done, because it must be, not because it's an antidote to feeling or another ride in their own personal amusement park. No rational general wants an army of psychopaths or zombies.
When I think of a true army, I think of the potpourri that was Tolkein's band of warriors, all courageous and committed, all honest and honorable, at times afraid but not fearful, emboldened by their belief in their mission but not mad or indiscriminate, merciful not meek, compassionate but never yielding, and always emotionally present for themselves and for one another.
We are civilians, true, but we are soldiers of a slightly more refined sort. And we are fighting battles on fields right here at home. The requirements are not all that different. We need to be alert, to think clearly, to see threats where threats exist and respond appropriately (which does not always mean being "nice") rather than imagining threats that don't exist or seeing even the mundane and neutral as dangerous. We cannot do this if we are fed a daily diet of consumer-driven viral fear by the media.
People who are afraid tend to go blank. We all know this to be true. We have either experienced it or seen it in the footage of 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing in which people walked around blank-faced, shocked, not knowing what to do with their bodies or their minds until the hand of a medic or rescue worker reached around theirs and pulled them to safety, until they heard the words "follow me" spoken by someone they could trust.
The irony in this culture of idol-smashers and rebels is that what is most necessary in crisis is for us to have an authority to follow, to have bonafide leadership, people whom we can count on to say what is TRUE, not confuse us with politically advantageous spin. Part of that authority now is the media. We don't meet the commanders and, in fact, we rarely hear from them except in orchestrated press conferences. There are no more midnight criers, their capes flapping in the icy wind as they ride through town. Whether it's tragic or comic, our new leaders, our new midnight criers are our newscasters.