Our then local paper’s news article had offered a reasonable view on a controversial topic, but its headline was inflammatory. Plus, one sentence in the article itself interrupted the article’s flow and contradicted its sense. I emailed the young reporter who had written the piece. He told me the editor who had written the headline had also inserted the malignant sentence. Both were designed to trigger anger in the reader and to stoke resentment of immigrants, while the article itself promoted understanding and recognized progress toward a more harmonious community.
This trend in headlines is now both common and dangerous. The article may inform the reader, but only the one who actually reads it. The New York Times online now includes an estimated reading time, presumably in the hope that people will do more than glance at the headlines. But do they, even in the Times? The excuse for inflammatory headlines may be a marketing tactic of attracting attention and encouraging the headline reader to delve further, but if the anger affect has already been triggered, might not the more likely thought be, “That’s all I need to know! They’re at it again, damn them!” The anger affect differs greatly from the interest affect. The former lights an emotional match; the latter leads the reader to look further into the matter.
I’m confident that a comparison of headlines in various newspapers and supermarket tabloids would reflect the polarization in our country. That so many Americans read little if anything beyond headlines and social media posts bestows inordinate power upon the headline writers and meme fabricators.
A second affect biased headlines and memes seek to trigger is fear. A third is disgust leading to contempt. Together in a toxic mix, feelings of anger, fear, and contempt encourage bigotry and hate while stifling desire to understand others, show respect, or feel compassion.
This morning, our now local newspaper explains a study detailing the shortfall in local incomes as they rise more slowly than the costs of housing whether purchased or rented. This problem is real for many people here, and it produces real distress, making it easy for opportunists to inflame resentment of already disliked targets who are not truly the cause. When people fear homelessness or find themselves forced to choose between the rent and healthful food or heat for their homes as winter deepens, they become vulnerable also to the wiles of people who hope to incite them to rage and maybe even violence.
Meanwhile, memes and even sermons (or what pass for sermons) offer platitudes of false, easy comfort or escape. Yes, I know, other sermons or religious rants aggressively join the manipulators fueling anger, resentment, contempt, and hatred – polarizing “them vs. us” – but my concern here is more with the insipid or airy than the bellicose.
In short, we need deeper thinking, broader understanding coming from listening as well as reading, better questions, and more trust in God than certitude about God’s likes and dislikes. Faith needs to do better than headlines and memes. We need to speak to people’s minds and not only their emotions or wallets. I’m not asking for detached intellectualism but for honest thought and for willingness to enter people’s confusion, doubt, and vulnerability (and maybe also hostility) and stay there with them.