87 Percent of Our Mental Life

Another absolute gem from Tim Kreider, this time via his essay on the intoxicating nature […]

David Zahl / 7.2.13

Another absolute gem from Tim Kreider, this time via his essay on the intoxicating nature of anger in We Learn Nothing. It’s just as much as riff on the pleasures–and costs–of self-justification, and while that may not exactly constitute breaking news, still, it takes guts to talk about this tendency so openly and specifically when your job as a political cartoonist is, as he admits, to be “professionally furious”. Plus, in a culture where “hate-watching” and “hate-reading” are quickly becoming a dominant paradigm, especially in regards to our “dialogue” on religion, these insights could not be more vital or urgent:

funny-food-style-art-design-pictures-food-photos-images-people-fun345-497x530If you’re anything like me, you spend about 87 percent of your mental life winning imaginary arguments that are never actually going to take place. You make up little stories to explain misunderstandings and conflicts, starring yourself as innocent victim and casting your antagonist as a villain driven by sheer, unilateral, motiveless malice. If you’ve ever made the mistake of committing your half of these arguments to print or email, you probably learned, as I have, that the other person’s half of the argument fails to conform to the script you wrote for them.

It seems like most of the fragments of conversation you overhear in public consist of rehearsals for or reenactments of just such speeches: shrill, injured litanies of injustice, affronts to common sense and basic human decency almost too grotesque to be borne: “And she does [x, y or z] all the time! I’ve just had it!” You don’t even have to bother eavesdropping; just listen for that unmistakable high, whining tone of incredulous aggreivement. It sounds like we’re all telling ourselves the same story over and over: How They Tried to _____ Me Over, sometimes with the happy denouement But I Showed Them! So many letters to the editor and comments on the Internet have this same tone of thrilled vindication: these are people who have been vigilantly on the lookout for something to be offended by, and found it…


Obviously, some part of us loves feeling 1) right and 2) wronged. But outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but, over time, devour us from the inside out. Except it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure. We prefer to think of it as a disagreeable stimuli, like pain or nausea, rather than admit that it’s a shameful kick we eagerly indulge again and again… And, as with all vices, vast and lucrative industries are ready to supply the necessary material. It sometimes seems as if most of the news consists of outrage porn, selected specifically to pander to our impulse to judge and punish…

I’m not saying that we should all just calm down, that It’s All Good. All is not good. There is plenty in any day’s headlines to appall and infuriate any decent human being… Outrage is healthy to the extent that it causes us to act against injustice, just as pain is when it causes us to avoid bodily harm. But pain can be perverted into masochism. And in my passionate loathing for the Taliban or the Bush administration, in my personal relationship to them, I’m really not much different from the kinds of housewives who used to write hate mail to the scheming villainesses on their favorite soap operas. The soaps refer to that character type, with dishy candor, as “the woman you love to hate”–one of the few contexts where you hear the love of hatred so frankly acknowledged. In political jargon, this sort of material is called “red meat,” which is pretty contemptuously up-front about the nature of the beast whose appetite is being appeased. As David Foster Wallace asked in his essay on talk radio, “Aren’t there parts of ourselves that are just better left unfed?” (pgs 50-51, 53-54)