By Kevin Currie-Knight
Political and cultural polarization is on the rise. And it’s not just that we increasingly see things differently, but that we’re more hostile to views that differ from ours, often seeing them as threats rather than mere differences. Social media – and this likely bleeds into other online and real-life spaces – is a sea of outrage, each day bringing some new spectacle towards which we can vent our incredulity, often in a mutually escalating way.
What’s the solution? Spend less time online? On social media? Watching the news? Maybe. But, I’d like to float something a bit more unorthodox: We need to care less about each other and narrow our purview.
Like sharing – about which I wrote last time – caring is generally framed as an almost unqualified virtue. To advocate that we care less about each other seems tantamount to advocating a retreat to selfishness. But care can go wrong in a lot of ways. For instance, misplaced or excessive care can lead to unnecessary stress that often precedes “compassion fatigue,” or more appropriately to our social-media-soaked lives, “outrage fatigue.”
Most importantly, I think that caring less might be in our discussions of tolerance, civility, and non-interference. Philosophers who study tolerance tend to agree that the virtue involves three elements: (a) I see others doing something I wish I could prevent; (b) I realize that I have the power to prevent it; and (c) I decide not to prevent it. If we think about it, (a) and (c) have a lot to do with care. In (a) I care both about some way of being I think is right and that others are violating that way. My care about both is what motivates my desire to put a stop to what the other is doing. (c) also has to do with care in that I decide that I care less about interfering with them than in allowing them to be; (maybe I care more about respecting their autonomy or being a certain kind of tolerant or loving person, but tolerance requires caring more about that than about the possible gains of interfering with others.)
If we think that leaving others alone (when we could have interfered) is a good thing, one way to do it is to care less about what others are doing. For (a), that means encountering fewer situations where what others are doing would bother me enough to warrant interference. For (c), not caring so much about others means that it will be a lot harder for me to justify interference even in cases where I want to interfere, because I care much less about correcting different others than I do about tending to things I care more about.
And let’s face it: We can only care about so many things. I care more about things the closer they are to my immediate purview. I am more likely to care about things when I believe those things affect me and those others whom I already care about. I care more about things when I have some sense that I can affect the thing/person/situation in question. Whatever else it is, care is selective. It has to be. To care about everything is to care about nothing.
One reason that some psychologists worry about “outrage fatigue” and others, like Jonathan Haidt, are calling ours a uniquely stupid age, might be that we are becoming less discriminate about what we should and shouldn’t care about. In several ways, social media messes around with the selectivity that care (in any way beyond the superficial) requires.
First, social media flattens the world, and whatever good that can produce, it also means that we are (or can be) exposed to more competition for our care than ever before. At any given time, there are so many things in the world that we can care about. Advances in media –newspapers, radio, television, and the internet – have increased the number of those things we are exposed to, and the internet and social media have drastically increased the number, to the point at which it has become ever more difficult even to ask whether x thing is worth caring about. (I will bypass the issue of whether these questions yield objective answers, but I think we’d all do better to be more judicious about the things to which we devote our emotional resources to.)
Another reason that we are less inclined to tolerate differences, ironically, is that the internet and social media have enhanced our impression that everything is interconnected. Surely, this can have beneficial effects, but it also means that everything becomes everyone’s business. Willingness to tolerate is easier the less you believe that what you are tolerating has some effect on you or those to whom you are connected.
Social media is particularly good at turning every event into a general narrative that explains how the event effects everyone, including you. A celebrity slaps another celebrity on national television in response to a joke the latter made about the former’s spouse? That’s either a return to chivalry that society – that’s you! – must endorse to resist the tide of relativism, or it’s an example of toxic masculinity that society – that’s you! – must stamp out. A female celebrity decides to lose weight and go on a fitness regimen? That’s your business too, because this is really about the larger issue of whether we should all feel comfortable in the bodies we have. And with a Tweet and a send, you can weigh in on these issues, because your voice counts! Show everyone in the world that you care, because they care whether you care and you might care whether they care that you care.
But do you care? Should you? And this is where I come up short on. The last thing I want to do is argue that you should indiscriminately stop caring about things in the world. I don’t even want to tell anyone that they should indiscriminately confine what they care about to things that immediately affect them. That would be as bad as the “indiscriminately caring about everything coming across my feed” that I am arguing against. To take but one example, George Floyd’s murder wasn’t about you and probably doesn’t affect you, but that isn’t a sufficient reason not to care about criminal justice reform issues it helped bring awareness to.
My point is more modest. In an age where we are both increasingly polarized and intolerant, we at least need to think about the role played by caring too much about too many things and too many people. We need to learn to be more discriminate in the things we care about. Do you really need to convince your uncle to say Black Lives Matter or your coworker that Blue Lives Matter? What difference will it make beyond a feeling of vindication if you are successful? Is it my business that this person on social media is sharing a religious view I find noxious? How much should I really care about that person’s approval, and at what point am I going too far in trying to secure it? I suspect that even asking these questions more deliberately can start to curb the excesses of our overextended care.