Thoughts on the policy priorities that outrage-based trend cycles distract us from pursuing.

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Sometimes fortune favors the optimistic. It certainly did for me when one of my posts, “3 ways to combat the ´worst timeline´ blues,” brought out a commenter from a different slice of the political spectrum.

In that post, I’d talked about the importance of overcoming our media fatigue, our sense of being dragged into inane trend cycles when far more pressing issues persist. And I had posted with a fairly progressive cast to my complaint. My examples of trend cycles hijacking our discourse included the Canadian convoy crisis, “cancel culture,” and “CRT.”

It’s reasonable, then, to assume that even my call to rise above these news cycles would still only “really” apply to people on the “right” side of politics. And I suspect that the commenter did assume as much, from their presentation of a counterexample with a Republican allegedly hacked by someone perhaps operating in service to Democratic organizations.

But I think that we’ve all been driven into stultifying news media routines. And I think it limits our ability to be heard in relation to issues dearer to our hearts.

In my post, I offered three suggestions for immediate ways to change our engagement with media. But the issue runs far deeper. We can’t always be reacting. We need to be proactive. And that means taking the time to figure out what is at the heart of our complaints. When we see news items that upset us, that stir us to indignity or outrage, why do they do that? What is the deeper societal failing or sense of transgression they invoke for us?

I see hands shooting up

For a secular audience, I wouldn’t be surprised if many folks quickly answered: “Easy! Religion!”

After all, many folks reading this piece live in places where religious movements attack church-state separation every day. Evangelical Christian thought aims to dictate public policy, the teaching of history, healthcare, the rise of a more emboldened white supremacy… it’s a lot.

But I’d encourage us to consider that even this is a reactive answer. Even this answer allows toxic religiosities to hold the center in our thought processes and public discourse.

Meanwhile, even though many politicians wield religious rhetoric, and do plenty in office for that base, many see this as simply part of the game. They just want the power to rig the system in favor of their financial holdings. They don’t care about any social damage done along the way.

Shifting the trend cycle

Let’s reframe the question, then. Put aside all the angry, ill-informed, and bullying people who show up at council meetings to intimidate local communities into teaching lesser history, science, and literature. Put aside the sitting representatives who stump for religiously informed healthcare policy with as little understanding of human anatomy and physiology as possible.

What is all of this keeping us from prioritizing? And can we talk about that instead?

In science fiction, there’s a famous story called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s her version of Ivan’s “not one tear” argument on the injustice of heaven, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In it, we’re asked to imagine a utopia for most that can only exist because one child suffers without end. When people learn about this catch, many stay, and are kinder where they can be because they know that this child’s suffering exists in the background. But some simply refuse this conditional utopia. They walk away.

Walking away, though, requires the ability to imagine that something exists beyond what we have. And that’s hard to do when trend cycles insist on their tantamount importance. There is nothing else we could or should be doing! Pay attention to this outrage right now!

Walking toward something better

When we know what our priorities are, and make a concerted effort to name them, we’re doing important work. We’re actively re-taking the center in our discourse.

And when we’re able to articulate what we’d rather be talking about, and how we’d rather be talking about it? That’s also when we start to make this better world a reality. (Adam Lee talks about similar here at OnlySky, in his excellent “The stories we retell tend to come true.”)

So that’s what I’d like to invite folks to do in this space and tell me:

What have been your priorities? What social issues matter to you, that you wish got as much air time as all the frustratingly stunting trend cycles we wake up to instead? In your ideal world, what would we be talking about?

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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.