Free Yourself from the Telescopic Morality Machine


There is one version of the history of modern media that is a story primarily about a drug, developed to make its users feel anger with delightful intensity. Refinement of this drug has made some great leaps in a very short time — it used to be you had to wait until a certain time of day to get it. Then you had to deal with having it mixed in with a lot of filler material. Now you can go straight to the social media site of your choice, where you and your fellow junkies can trade images of victims overlayed with condemning quotes, or infographics which expose injustice in striking bar and pie charts. And now the shared experience of other people’s outrage has become part of the concoction, and it is immeasurably more potent as a result.

Like actual chemically-induced pleasures, in excess this anger is a sickness. It consumes your waking thoughts, and takes your vitality with you when it leaves. When the dose is administered, an extreme form of tunnel vision sets in. You get sucked into a monomaniacal focus on the object of some injustice, far away from you or anyone you know, and are temporarily unable to see anything that is actually a part of your life. You lose sight of vulgar morality, the stuff that really matters, and succumb to the siren song of telescopic morality. You rage at things you cannot control at the expense of time you could be investing improving the state of affairs around you, for your family, your community. The long term effect of mainlining telescopic morality is utter hollowness; ethical triviality. A life spent desperately grasping at fractured and filtered pieces of other people’s stories, a life hardly lived.

The problem of overcoming telescopic morality involves one of the central questions of our times: how to develop a healthy relationship with information. Given the sheer magnitude of the fresh information generated every hour of every day, this is no small challenge.

The answer comes from looking at your life as a whole, and asking yourself what it means to live well, to live meaningfully. Does it really mean raging impotently about far away matters you are utterly powerless to impact? What kind of life are you striving for, exactly? No one arrives at the exact same answer, but posing the question is a big step for most people. And for most people, the general formula is in the same ballpark — making a living, being surrounded by loved ones who treat you well, being the kind of person worthy of admiration. Devoting the time and resources to pursuing projects and aspirations that are meaningful and that you would be proud to speak of on your deathbed.

You can spend your whole life trying to complete your answer to the question of how to live well, but as soon as it is asked and you begin to think about it, you must also think about the how. A lot of it is straightforward; if you’re a parent and a spouse, spend more time with your children and spouse and less raging about injustice. But it’s not just about clocking in hours — work to become truly a part of their lives, and to make them a part of yours. Likewise with the many communities and circles you inhabit — work to truly become a part of them, and to make them a part of who you are.

Do what you can to help the people who need it, right here, where you can see them. A lot of harm has been done by well-intentioned people trying to do help for others that they have no connection to, and therefore barely any idea of the consequences of their “help”. We can do much more by throwing ourselves into what Alasdair MacIntyre calls networks of uncalculated giving; communities in which people look out for one another, no matter what it takes. But such networks are necessarily limited in size and in distance.

Of course, it is not really feasible to put your head under a rock and hide from the tsunami of information that is sweeping the world. So, once we begin to answer the question of what it means to live well, we have to return to the specific question of developing a healthy relationship with information.

The challenges to developing such a relationship are many. Rolf Dobelli compiled a good list of problems specific to the news, but the trouble does not end with the professionals. The community-building aspect of the Internet that is such a marvel in so many contexts is also a venue for an enormous amount of ugliness. News pieces that already lack important context are further stripped down in blockquotes on blog posts and social media and presented in as provocative a manner as possible. Such provocations become something of a social currency within certain circles, in subject areas by no means restricted to politics.

Getting yourself to a healthy place must begin with an honest accounting of your own limitations, as well as the main vectors for the sickness of anger. You have important psychological and physiological limitations; deliberation and decisionmaking consume energy in your body. The sources for that energy are shared with the non-cognitive parts of your body, which means physical exertion also limits the energy available for slow thinking. In short, you only have so much energy in a given day to devote to thinking things through carefully. And the toxic outrage induced by the informational drug consumes this energy just as concretely as doing a series of difficult math equations in your head would. Your time spent indulging in anger robs you of energy you need to be thoughtful when dealing with the people in your life, meaning that raging about things you cannot control reduces your ability to be a decent human being in the life you’re actually living.

The best way to manage this precious resource on a daily basis is to think through how to engage information in a structured, strategic way. You must then begin the hard work of developing habits of engagement; sticking to a regular routine most of the time but also preparing yourself for unexpected exposure, which is a fact of life. You need to develop a habit of asking certain questions when new information is plopped in front of you with minimal or highly selective context. “Do I know how representative this is of the situation at large? Is there a history here that I’m unaware of, perhaps that the author themselves are unaware of?” These and similar questions help to put such stories in perspective, or to emphasize to yourself that you lack the appropriate perspective from which to judge them.

The most important question, however, is even simpler: “how is sitting here and getting angry going to help anyone?” Indulging in telescopic morality does not help the people in the story, or the people in your life, or even yourself, save for in an exceptionally myopic sense.

Drinking deeply from the well of knowledge — actually reading books, doing research, and above all, learning history — can also go a long way towards putting the flood of stories in a proper perspective, which is a sort of protection from the anger-inducing drug, though a limited one. It is also a worthy pursuit in itself, though it’s perfectly possible to live a good life without it; and there are many more worthy pursuits to which that time could be devoted. But the point is to find the pursuits that are worthy.

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