Why fear overload is a threat to your vote

by | Nov 4, 2018 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

This weekend, American Jews gathered in synagogues for Sabbath services, more fearful than they’d been the weekend before. They wondered if some murderous madman might now enter their sanctuaries.

For them, it was hard to imagine an issue more critical.

But elsewhere in the country, the mass shooting of last weekend was already old news. The national media was onto our President’s insistence that a caravan of refugees was akin to an invasion. Or his threat to eliminate birthright citizenship.

Just days before,  the big story was who could wear what for Halloween, and NBC’s Megyn Kelly getting fired for an uncomfortable opinion. Not long before that, it was whether a Supreme Court nominee was lying, and whether Bill Cosby deserved to rot in prison.

Just over a year earlier, it was a gunman who killed 58 people in Las Vegas. Remember? And everyone swore things would change? At about the same time, sexual assault charges were made against Harvey Weinstein. A year ago? Doesn’t Weinstein feel like he’s been a national disgrace for a decade?

I’d been thinking what I could possibly write in advance of this week’s elections that would be of any value. What perspective could I possibly offer? So much keeps happening. So much is reported. So much is debated.

And then I realized:

It’s the “so much” that is becoming a threat.

And our attention spans are what we must guard against.

Fear is clouding our vision

There’s a reason that President Trump is screaming about invaders taking your jobs this week. There’s a reason Trump’s predecessor, President Obama, is suddenly public, loudly defending what he says his party stands for. There’s a reason that every five minutes you see a disparaging TV ad about what a horrible person one candidate is, and how, if he or she wins, you’ll be sorry.

It’s because we don’t pay attention until something’s blasting right in front of us. Politicians know this. Researchers know this. I’ve been in many meetings where the phrase “a 48-hour news cycle” is used. (Years ago, it was 72 hours. But that’s my point.)

We live in such a blurred rush of “major” news that we must be cautious. Are we reacting to issues of our lives, or issues of the moment? Are we voting what is truly important, or what feels truly important right now?

The “caravan” is a perfect example. Whatever number of refugees it is, whomever it actually comprises, a sensible mind knows this is not a long-term threat to anyone. A year from now no one will be talking about it. But if you went on the amount of headlines this week, you’d think it was the Normandy invasion. You’d think our nation’s fate hung in the balance.

The caravan is front and center because it’s a fear-based topic, and politicians know fear can get people to do quickly what they might not do with more thought. Like vote a certain way.

But we should ask ourselves, before we complete a ballot, what the issues are that matter today, next week, next month and next year.

Those are the things upon which we should base our decisions.

We’re overloaded by information

You hear a lot about our forefathers at election time. What they wanted for this country. What they intended. But something I admired about our forefathers’ lifestyle was the letters they would write — to one another, to their spouses, to their children. Penned by candlelight, requiring a steady hand, they reflected on the issues of the day, issues to which they had given a great deal of thought. These letters might take several hours, after which, the author would prepare for sleep.

Compare that to our current nightly avalanche of news and social media. Everything is a “breaking story.” Everything is trending. We report on the reporting. We monitor the reaction. What Twitter is saying counts (astoundingly) as news.

Who has any time for candlelight reflection? Who has the means for discourse? We are all too busy trying to read our emails, post our photos, check our Facebooks, so we can get to the next hour, where we can read, post and check in again.

I think back to those forefathers only a few hundred years ago, and I wonder whether we are really built for this information overflow.  There are scientific articles that claim we are not. That our brains are not constructed for the multitasking we are so proud of. That we pay a mental price for the overload of issues, information and demands of modern life.

If so, maybe the biggest election challenge before us is to ignore the noise and the fearmongering, and determine what really is an issue and what is a distraction. May we be granted the wisdom to know the difference. And to use that wisdom to exercise the precious power of one person, one vote, to freely determine our fate.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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