Open Thread: Avoiding the Negativity vs. Being Informed

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Jeremiah Traeger

Skepticism isn’t easy. It’s far more than just “disbelieving things”. It’s aligning your beliefs as best you can with the best available evidence. That takes work.

We know we can’t just consume media from one perspective. When a new controversial story comes out, I tend to look past the Huffington Posts and the Alternets to avoid my left leaning bias. I avoid Breitbart for just being untrustworthy, but the Blaze is often good for a laugh. It’s good to get a story from multiple news sources, even “fair and balanced” sites that claim to present the news as it is while still having a bit of a slant. Usually I’m able to see why they have the opinions they have, even if I find them based on faulty premises.

The “skeptics” I most disagree with tend to be people who make 20-30 long YouTube videos. Watching just one is exhausting, especially when their rhetoric and mannerisms are so condescending, reminiscent of the bullies who alienated and attacked me growing up. Yet when I don’t engage in watching the whole thing, suddenly I’m intellectually dishonest. Even though sometimes it will take pages and pages of blog posts to rebut a single video (Thanks to Stephanie Zvan and Martin Hughes for those). That’s exhausting.

I don’t even have time to listen to podcasts from people I consider friends and that I largely agree with. My podcatcher is filled with episodes from people I enjoy talking to a lot yet won’t listen to this week… or next week… or the week after. My rule of thumb is that if the next episode comes out before I’ve listened to the previous one, the previous one gets removed. The atheist podcast community is pretty oversaturated, unfortunately, and I just can’t be exposed to every point of view.

This also means if I want to be exposed to other viewpoints I have to actively carve out time specifically for that. I have to give credit to Secular Media Group’s Paleo Radio for providing a pretty reasonable perspective that occasionally is lot more centrist/libertarian than my progressive peers. I’ve recently listened to a No Religion Required listener’s Creating a New World, a podcast focused on eliminating government entirely, something that’s probably far out for most atheists. And whenever there’s drama within the community (such as one podcaster calling another podcaster out), I’ve tended to listen to the “other side” more often than not, if only to hear the specific grievances of what that person says and not just take the word of people on my side.

Then there’s the big problems that the general public would know more about than those involved in atheist communities. We have to be informed about Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Syria. In this year’s election season, I need to know about climate change, the tax code, our border policy, religious freedom, women’s healthcare, police violence, election reform, police violence, party corruption, Hillary Clinton’s emails, Donald Trump’s bigotry, GMOs, vaccines, gun control, LGBTQ rights, the Trans Pacific Partnership, student debt, and where people should be allowed to pee. These topics intersect with each other, yet any one could take hours to get a decent perspective on any of them.

What doesn’t help is that for a good many of these, I could easily not care about them. No nondiscrimination law is likely to affect me in the near future. I’m in a largely white city with low police violence, and due to how I’m perceived I’m unlikely to get pulled over for a busted taillight. But if we make the wrong choice on LGBTQ issues, people die. If we make the wrong choice on gun control, people die. If we make the wrong choice about our poverty problem, families get kicked out of their homes and then they die. For a lot of minorities and marginalized folks, these discussions are far more than just intellectual academic disagreements, they are life or death. We can talk all day about what makes women uncomfortable in bathrooms, but encoding transgender bathroom rules into law can lead to them getting killed. We could argue forever about our local housing communities, but blacks will continue to be disproportionately targeted by gentrification. These topics are exhausting for me to be informed about, and none will affect me in any personal way. I do not envy anyone who has to end up arguing with people every day where they get to urinate, something so basic that I barely give a thought about doing it when I need to. This has some serious mental health implications (something I also need to be informed about).

At some point, it’s important to take care of ourselves. I like to go home, read blogs, cook dinner, and see if I can catch some new pokemon. I already wrote why it’s ok to focus on your personal problems even in a world filled with such massive issues, and that should extend to taking care of yourself. But how am I supposed to compensate? I’m privileged to have a job that I can sometimes listen to podcasts (I also have to be informed on the relevant scientific literature for my job, which is more of the same problem I’ve been discussing here). That’s often not possible, so then I have to catch up on the news and media once I get home, where I have limited time to take care of myself before going to sleep and going to work the next day. I’m not capable of finding out the whole spectrum of opinions on every topic that was in my Facebook feed today. I’m exhausted once I get home from work, and according to some people if I don’t take the time to watch a bully on YouTube that’s even more exhausting, I’m intellectually dishonest? And if I’m exhausted getting home from work, how more exhausted would I be if I were a trans woman coming home to my news feed with people threatening to beat up “a man in a dress walking into my daughter’s bathroom”? I’d have a choice to let that bullshit go unchallenged and give myself a mental break, or taking time and energy to call someone who clearly doesn’t value my humanity. I don’t blame someone taking either choice, but there is some negative outcome either way.

I think it’s awesome that we can so easily connect with like-minded people via the internet. This allows us to find communities. Yet I’m always aware that I need to expose myself to others who disagree with me. It’s one reason why I never really unfriend people for disagreement (I’ve only done it twice, one for blatant transphobia and one for blatant racism, and I had already called both of them out on that before). But I’m also sympathetic to people who just can’t put up with bullshit. I’m also definitely not going to criticize anyone cutting someone out of their life or blocking someone for being abusive. But even sometimes, one person’s “intellectual disagreement” can have drastic consequences on the life of another. May I remind you about LGBTQ teens who are homeless cause their parents “don’t agree with the lifestyle”?

Does maintaining intellectual honesty conflict with taking care of yourself? Does being a good skeptic mean trying to be informed on every single issue all the time? Obviously no. No reasonable human would mind someone cutting off all contact with someone harassing them. But being informed about the ills of the world brings some stress into my life, to the point where it can impact my daily life and productivity in a hugely negative way. Perhaps this isn’t a problem with anyone else, but wanting to be exposed to the “other side” certainly makes it a lot harder for me to share the memes that encourage people to cut all the negative thinking out of their life.

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[Image: Beautiful things start to happen when you get away from the negativity. Source: positiveoutlooksblog.com]

About the only conclusion I’ve come to myself is that I will never be informed on every issue. While it’s not ideal, it takes a lot of weight off of my shoulders. I’m more interested in how other skeptics deal with this problem. Where do you draw your lines? At what point do you stop following certain media or unfriending people? How do you make sure you have time to take care of yourself, while at the same time making sure you’re not clueless about the world you live in? Do you expose yourself to hatred, knowing that you could use that exposure to correct some of the problems you see? And if so, how? How do you spend your time at home, when you are able to relax and effectively shut out the world? How do you balance that out?

Please comment below.

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