Much of the political information we see today shares a common characteristic: it is intended to make you angry. As consumers, creators, and sharers of political information, what should we do about that? Like most good questions, this one invites further questions.
As a teaching librarian, the one that guides me in the classroom and in my research is: What are the features of the information landscape that call for my students’ careful attention?
“Landscape” is central to that question. In recent years, the idea that all information occurs in an ecosystem has gained significant traction. That system constrains the scope of our information choices, and our choices to consume, share, and create information cumulatively influence the ecosystem. Thinking about information from this perspective can lead to unexpected places.
Back to the question of why there is so much anger and hostility in American politics, long-term political observers point to varying factors at work. Jane Mansbridge of the Harvard Kennedy School associates the rise of partisan animosity with shifts in power in federal-level politics that have taken place over the course of the past 50 years. Now that there is essentially an even split between Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., the realistic possibility of either side gaining a majority incentivizes more competitive — and polarizing — strategies in campaigning and legislative work.
In a 2011 “Peace in the Desert” lecture hosted by UNLV’s Saltman Center, NPR commentator Linda Wertheimer points to shady practices in congressional redistricting that favor more extreme, less compromising candidates. She also notes that attitudes about the economy following the 2008 recession — a sense of uncertainty about the future and resentment over income inequality — contribute to heightened levels of tension and distrust.
But Wertheimer made these observations in 2011. By some significant measures, the economy appears to be recovering. How long does it take our attitudes to recover from such a crisis? How do we move past our animosity?
Perhaps the question isn’t how to extinguish our anger, but if we even should? Philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that anger is never a good thing because the vindictiveness that accompanies anger draws energy away from constructive efforts to address the conditions that occasioned the anger in the first place. Fellow philosopher Amia Srinivasan counters that anger is an indispensable part of truly perceiving and understanding injustice and that critiques of anger can diminish the voices of those who need to speak up for themselves the most .
Robert Solomon stakes out a more nuanced position: anger is best critiqued in light of the circumstances in which it occurs. “Good anger” fits the occasion and leads to positive outcomes, like getting your point across to those who previously had not considered your position seriously. Solomon points to Picasso’s Guernica as the product of refined, incisive anger.
But all of this is preliminary to the question: When I come across inflammatory political speech in the news or on social media or in conversation, how should I respond?
If possible, pause, reflect, and ask more questions. Is the discourse in question an expression of heartfelt anger? A matter of posturing to make the speaker appear smart and righteous? Or a stratagem to effect a particular outcome by sowing outrage and discord? Even more important are questions about the consequences of anger: If I let this person or campaign succeed in making me angry, what do they get out of my anger? If I end up getting angry, what’s in it for me?
The idea of the information ecosystem becomes crucial at this point, as there may be long-term consequences for the choices we make in a moment of anger. Do the decisions we make as consumers, creators, and sharers of information make it harder or easier to use information to learn anything meaningful about political questions? Can we become intelligent stewards of our information environment?
As consumers, we exert a powerful influence on the political aspects of the information ecosystem. We hold the votes, the dollars, and the attention that the content providers need. If we demand better, we’ll get better.