It's easy to be discouraged by what's thrust into our news cycles. What we're expected to respond to is often so far removed from the issues that need our attention most. So how do we fix this?

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When I left Canada in 2018, I had a few reasons for my choice. One was economic. Another was no longer wishing to be part of the culture. Both are complicated, because plenty of people are trapped in economic hellscapes and cannot stand their culture, so what made me different? It’s the worst timeline for all of us, isn’t it? Just shut up and struggle like the rest, no?

I’m deeply grateful that I had the opportunity to move. It wasn’t easy to pull off. It still isn’t easy. I’m caught in the strangest fight for long-term stability I’ve ever known. But for all my struggles to make a new home in Colombia, I’ve been freed up to focus on issues that matter most to me. Questions of humanism writ large. Questions of how to think radically and empathetically about real systemic change.

And yet, when I look at where so much of North American discourse has been spinning its wheels these past few years, I don’t feel relief for having “gotten out.” (Not that I ever fully did). No, I feel deep sadness. I remember what it was like to be compelled to react to whatever new trend-cycle had reared its head. I remember how totalizing our way of living so easily became.

I like to talk in “evergreen” terms as much as possible, so I won’t linger on the specifics of the current “trucker” convoy in Canada, which has troubling support from white supremacists, alarming levels of police/state toleration, and U.S.-styled “freedom” rhetoric that attests to the encroachment of related politics in Canadian affairs.

But I’ll say that it’s only the latest in a long line of “worst timeline” news items.

And this week, I’d love for us to reckon with that fatigue.

Hijacked news cycles in the worst timeline ever

Did we get the idea of the “worst timeline” from Community? There’s a glorious meme from the show that has Troy returning with pizza, after having lost the dice roll that created multiple universes, to an apartment on fire and in overwhelming crisis. The whole gag hinges on Troy’s utter bafflement at how things could have gotten so bad so quickly.

We feel you, Troy. We do.

(Also, they call it the “darkest timeline”, but I’m one of those annoying writers who tries not to use the word “dark” in a negative context: bleak, grim, macabre, sordid, awful… there’s a whole grab-bag of fun replacements).

Worse timelines exist, of course. Still, it’s hard some days not to feel assailed by news that binds us to discourses we did not choose, and would not have chosen for ourselves. For a few miserable years, this included “Did you see what the President tweeted?!” And, “Which major celebrity is fanning the flames of conspiracy this week?”

But also, who could forget all the broader fearmongering? Contrived threats like “Cancel Culture” (i.e., a market economy treating prominently platformed people more like how service workers and marginalized people have been treated for generations), and “Critical Race Theory” (i.e. a stirred-up retaliatory term that allowed right-wing movements to treat the teaching of history as tantamount to anti-white oppression)?

What happened to our discourse?

Most everywhere I looked, I saw clickbait and agenda-setting that pulled us further from serious conversation about the issues that matter. Issues like,

  • How to transition people to economically stable lives as traditional industries collapse, either due to increased investments in green energy or the rise of automation.
  • How to combat the profound isolationism that fuels info-silo toxicity, and leaves people vulnerable to hate-driven radicalization.
  • What we can do to ease our cultures from strict fealty to a nationalism that only heightens worldly trauma amid climate change, resources wars, and relatedly rising refugeeism.
  • How to get people to care about carceral justice reform on a mass scale.
  • What we can we do to prepare for the climate change crises already upon us.

And oh my yes, we’re going to get into these questions and many more over the coming weeks.

First, though, we have to recognize how much we’re being pulled away from these and similarly difficult conversations. Routine exposure trains us to give dramatic news cycles all our time and focus. And even if we recognize when it’s happening, do we know how to fight it?

How do we refuse the terms of mainstream discourse given to us every day?

Fighting the “worst timeline” blues

Funnily enough, folks who say “oh, that’s why I don’t read the news” are only partially off-base. They’ve diagnosed a significant part of the problem: a disconnect between how awful everything is and what can be done about it. Where their approach falls apart, of course, is in its complete abandonment to helplessness.

Similarly, people who say “oh, I don’t read mainstream news” have also clued into a bit of the issue, especially with respect to corporate clickbait. However, they’ve also placed themselves at risk of falling into very deep info-silos indeed.

On the other hand, who wants to be the annoying person who cuts off “Have you read the latest news?!” with a game of issues-based oneupsmanship?

Here, I have three ideas on offer that are immediate, actionable steps that can help clear the noise in conversations thrust upon us by the latest news.

The starting line-up

First and foremost, stop signal-boosting awful people doing awful things.

Oh, but it’s so stimulating, isn’t it? Who doesn’t get a rush out of being righteously outraged?

There’s another way to approach these stories, though. You can focus on the victims and affected communities. And you can focus on the people fighting the good fight for them.

What would our media look like if we all refused to platform awful behavior? Didn’t give people even a moment’s fame for being cruel? Let the celebrity villain trope fall clean away?

Secondly, know the story better than the mainstream news is telling it. This doesn’t mean doing mountains of research for everything you hear and see, but it does mean training yourself to see the Big Picture behind specific news items. We could haggle over little details all day, every day (and do). But where does it connect to something greater? Something actionable?

Dive into the Big Picture, and invite others to do so, too.

And finally, be ready to make lateral connections. For instance, imagine someone outraged because they were put on unpaid leave for not getting vaccinated. But everything they’ve been reading says this is an injustice! You could argue with them on the level of civic responsibility, but this is about “freedom”! Is there any way to meet them on the terms normalized by their news?

Sure is! Because you know what’s great for personal freedom? Universal basic income, so that a person doesn’t have to worry about workplace mandates if they don’t want to. Don’t want to wear shoes? With UBI, you don’t have to bow to any employer’s standards if you don’t want to!

The anger is still there, of course. But with the right lateral connection, maybe you can nudge them into a body of media and related activism better for us all.

We could haggle over little details all day, every day (and do). But where does it connect to something greater? Something actionable? Dive into the Big Picture, and invite others to do so, too.

Beyond fatigue… sort of

Admittedly, though, as much as these three steps seem obvious, the execution can be defeating. Or, more to the point, it’s exhausting when you feel like the only one following through on them.

That’s why it’s also important to name what’s happening to us. To name the news cycles taking over our everyday lives, and driving habit-formation so deep that it becomes background noise.

It does not have to be background noise.

The news cycles given to us do not have to shape how we choose to focus our energy.

In Wednesday’s “Tooling Around,” I’m going to invite us all to think about how to remember our personal priorities when it comes to the issues and discourse that matters. But for today, if you’ve got anything you’d like to add to this starting line-up, or to share about your own experience of the “worst timeline” blues, I’d love to hear it. How do you bear up to the fatigue of so much inane news?

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.