When news of the recent Executive Order concerning refugees and immigration broke, I quickly turned to some of my favorite news sites to get a better understanding of things. One of my favorite bloggers, Rod Dreher, posted nothing. Part of that was a matter of familial responsibility. Another part of it was his need for better and more complete information himself (you can read that Sunday afternoon post here). It’s a reminder that we live in tricky times, which is more than just living in a world of “alternative facts” (regardless of what some pundits would have us believe). And so how do we navigate our contemporary information culture, particularly when every moment could be a trigger for protest?
One of my other favorite writers, Alan Jacobs, recently shared his thoughts on the matter in a post called “Recency Illusions.” I’m not sure how feasible his conclusion is, but it makes a lot of sense.
Those who are interested in history will remember events like the Battle of New Orleans, fought weeks after the Treaty of Ghent had ended the War of 1812 because word of the treaty hadn’t reached the armies. Since then, thanks to a series of well-known technological changes, the news cycle has grown shorter and shorter until now many people get their news minute-by-minute.
If the frequency that led to the Battle of New Orleans was too long, the Twitter-cycle is far, far too short. People regularly get freaked out by stories than turn out to be false, and by the time the facts are known a good deal of damage (not least to personal relationships) has often already been done — plus, the disappearance of the cause of an emotion doesn’t automatically eliminate the emotion itself. In fact, it often leaves that emotion in search of new justifications for its existence.
I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion. So I’m not just staying off Twitter, I’m cutting back on the news sites in my RSS feed, and deleting browser bookmarks to newspapers. Instead, I am turning more of my attention to monthly magazines, quarterly journals, and books. I’m trying to get a somewhat longer view of things — trying to start thinking about issues one when some of the basic facts about them have been sorted out. Taking the short view has burned me far too many times; I’m going to try to prevent that from happening ever again (even if I will sometimes fail). And if once in a while I end up fighting a battle in a war that has already ended … I can live with that.
The reasonable pushback, of course, is that perhaps we cannot afford to wait for the facts. If life moves quickly, we should have response times that match. The word “afford” in the previous sentence could be telling. And yet . . .
It’s an interesting challenge, for sure, one made difficult by the speed of daily life. I can’t help but think, though, that Jacobs makes a great point.
(image from knowyourmeme.com)