America’s Catharsis Culture Problem
How emotions cloud and crowd out the ideas debate the country needs to have
“I’m mad as hell and I just can’t take it anymore.”
If there’s a stock phrase that captures the national zeitgeist in America right now, that one would be a leading candidate.
A strong majority of Americans have said that the country is on the wrong track for most of the last five years, with a brief exception in early 2021. Americans’ anger and dissatisfaction are extremely high. Only 13 percent of Americans recently said that they are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States, matching where things stood during the first summer of the pandemic in 2020 and the first days of 2021 during the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Every day there’s a story about some angry incident in America. Fist fights on airplanes are off the charts, last year was the worst year on record for road rage shootings, and angry protestors on the left and the right target their rage in ways that sometimes appear counterproductive or just simply inane.
Consider the actions and impact of protestors outside of the homes of Supreme Court justices. Their actions have alienated the people who live in those same neighborhoods, including those who agree with their position on abortion. Or the young staffers who staged a sit-in in Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office to protest Congress’ alleged inaction on climate change.
In a more extreme display of public anger, a group of people protesting the January 6th hearings last week harassed and jeered a former Washington D.C. police officer who was beaten by the mob during the 2021 insurrection and suffered a heart attack. Welcome to another summer of discontent in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
This anger in the streets is echoed in how political leaders, media commentators, and policy analysts interact with each other and debate issues. There’s almost a Pavlovian instinct to react to opposing views and spend more time lashing out against something rather than trying to persuade others and advance one’s own views.
Think about the field or area that you focus on or the political voices that seem to get the most attention in our media and culture. For me, the area of U.S. policy in the Middle East is a key focus, and there’s a lot of rage and anger that seems to have crowded into the area of analysis and what should happen next. President Joe Biden’s visit earlier this month to the Middle East served like a Rorschach test, the inkblots that psychologists sometimes use to test emotional functioning. Writers and analysts expressed a wide range of emotions about Biden’s visit, including outrage, embarrassment, disappointment, schadenfreude, and some satisfaction. But these reactions crowded out clinical interpretations of what the trip achieved and what might come next.
In the ideas industry that include think tanks and media as well as academia, some people seem to believe that putting up insta-analysis commentary on social media or taking to organizational Slack chats to express their personal feelings is a key – if not central – part of their job. This mode of discourse in policy and politics operates almost as a form of personal therapy for individuals, a sort of catharsis about events beyond their control or influence.
America has a catharsis culture problem: our fixation on expressing various emotions is crowding out our ability to think clearly and rationally. “Catharsis,” which comes from a Latinized version of the Greek word kathairein, meaning "to purify or purge.”
For sure, there’s a lot of debate these days about a “cancel culture” problem, the practice or tendency of engaging in mass ostracization as a way of expressing personal disapproval and exerting social pressure. Like most public debates these days, this one is particularly overwrought and overstated – a reflection of this other problem of too much catharsis, not enough thinking.
Why we’ve become so unhinged
1. We have a lot to be upset about these days. Objectively there are a lot of problems that trouble us no matter your own ideological background or identity: big problems with our democracy, high prices and temperatures, rising rates of crime, and overseas wars, but the things that make our pulses rise are the things that cut closest to our values, identities, and daily lives.
2. There’s a very serious mental health crisis in the country. Recent studies have found high levels of anxiety across many demographics, and suicide rates, especially from guns and drug overdoses, are elevated too. With good reason, the federal government this month set up a 988 mental health telephone line to mirror the 911 line we can call during an emergency.
Social isolation during the pandemic is likely a big factor in all of this, leading to all sorts of social problems driven by a mental health crisis. There’s no easy policy solution to these challenges, as Matthew Yglesias has noted.
3. We are divided into many different camps. It’s not just the red versus blue partisan divisions these days, but also divisions within parties and ideological camps. On top of it, many institutions including places where some of us work are divided over social, cultural, and identity issues.
4. The debilitating effects of media, especially social media. It has been well-documented that the way the media covers issues profits financially from our divisions. Social media companies have algorithms that pull us further apart. Opinion shapers on talk radio and cable television set a framework that reflects and exacerbates our country’s divisions.
5. Politics tends to prioritize base mobilization over persuasion. This broader cultural and media environment feeds into an unhinged politics that incentives the extremes to try to move the so-called Overton window in their direction and mobilize one’s own political camp rather than persuade those on the fence or in other camps. This base mobilization fallacy has led to some of recent setbacks for political camps.
There are two main problems with fighting fire with fire. First, it could produce bigger fires that could ultimately leave our democracy smoldering in ruins. Second, it actually risks repelling more people away from politics and public life than the number of people it mobilizes and inspires, driving a disengagement away from public life.
More than a feeling: what you can do to help
1. Keep things in perspective and look on the bright side. Take a closer look under the hood on happiness metrics and you will see that there are many positive aspects of our lives right now – and our collective satisfaction with how our own lives are going is much greater than our collective satisfaction with how things are going in the country and the world.
2. Practice mental hygiene and safeguard against truth decay. It’s a tricky thing to do these days with all sorts of actors actively sowing disinformation and producing bullshit at an industrial scale. Truth decay is a real thing. We need to be more vigilant about checking the facts
3. Listen to others with opposing views. It’s healthy and enlightening to try and understand a view that’s not aligned with your own, even if it frustrates or angers you in some way. It’s countercultural these days to suggest this: pick up a magazine with writers who don’t share your perspective or take someone out for coffee who is in a different political party.
4. Channel energy and emotions into something productive with a clearly stated and realistic outcome. Emotion is a good thing if it is channeled towards building coalitions and producing results, rather than tearing things down. There’s just too much performative wailing in public life, and this public therapy generally doesn’t make things better.
5. Take a breather and live a life. Most humans only get about 4,000 weeks to live, and life’s too short to squander it on things that don’t end up producing lasting results. Take more time to live a life aimed at generating more happiness for yourself and others.
It’s summertime. What are you waiting for?
Perhaps the most important thing we can do to stop the big fires from burning across the nation and the world is to look at our own actions and how we treat each other in our daily lives.