Among the great and mighty rules that fledgling novelists and screenwriters learn is to fill their work with conflict. It is so baked into the bread of a writer’s life that this rule is rarely questioned, nor is this devotion to conflict recognized as a major contributor to massive social misery.
Whenever I walk into my neighborhood Costco, I get a brief yet palpable feeling of sadness when I see the line-up of TVs for sale. I have come to view TV as dispensers of bad news, which is to say, constant conflict. If the content that we put into our brains is mind food, then the high-definition TVs that we work into our living spaces act like junk food that may lead to mind poisoning.
We pay for the beautiful TVs and their glorious high-def pictures. We pay for the cable or satellite or subscription services that feed us mind food. Ultimately, without our being consciously aware of it, we may pay for it with our mental health, too.
I don’t think that many people have stopped to wonder what this saturation of media exposure is doing to our consciousness, both individually and collectively. TV is so ubiquitous to our culture as are movies and books that feature conflict (as the majority do) that we think of it as normal. We gorge on this stuff.
I come from the first generation that grew up with TV, the Boomers. Yet while most families had TVs, life was still fairly balanced with other activities. Boomers can remember a life before the saturation of computers, smartphones, Google, etc. From that vantage point, we can see more of the arc of social change that technology has created.
We can see how much more in your face conflict is because of the gadgetry that delivers it.
KNOW WHEN YOU’RE HOOKED
Sometimes when I go about my everyday business, I realize that I am being influenced by old stories of conflict. Let’s say that I go to a rustic park for a relaxing hike in the woods. Out of nowhere, I start wondering what could go wrong. Is someone waiting down the trail to mug me? Will I slip and fall and need help? Will some wild animal attack me? My mind seems to preview everything that could possibly go wrong, most of it based on stories of other people’s rotten experiences in the woods.
Last fall I drove myself from Oregon to Arizona via Idaho and Utah. I took many roads spontaneously, and especially when driving through Nevada, I found myself more out in the middle of nowhere than ever in memory. I chuckled when I saw that Highway 50 is known as the Loneliest Highway in the US. I believe it! But what struck me the most was how many times during my crossing of the wasteland did I wonder what would happen to me if my car broke down and there was no cell phone service. It was a thought I could not get out of my head no matter how many different songs I played.
Why do I automatically start thinking of all the things that could go wrong? Is it that in all of the stories I have ingested over my years of living, things go wrong all the time? Things going wrong is part of the formula. Was I born to be so fearful, or have I been conditioned after hearing so many stories about problems people encounter. I am not describing a phobia or a mental health condition. Rather, I am describing an awareness of tendencies of thinking and where those tendencies have come from.
The conflicts do not have to be life threatening or horror story fodder. Most of my life does not involve life-threatening situations. It could be something like being afraid to share an opinion for (a conditioned) fear of insulting, offending, or riling someone. That fear could come from having just seen a movie or read a book where someone got into deep doo-doo for expressing an unpopular opinion, such as authors a few generations ago who got imprisoned because they wrote things said to “excite lewd thoughts.”
It could be a fear of consulting a doctor, lawyer, therapist, contractor, or sales person because I had just been exposed to disaster story after disaster story about how some so-called professional abused a client. No, these fears don’t usually keep me from taking an action, and yet there is brain residue from dealing with all the distrust that has come to my consciousness from an external source.
Think about it. Think about how many stories you get exposed to hour after hour, day after day, that graphically illustrate conflict. Think of how many times you become outraged, hurt, or afraid as your first response to a story, even if you can intellectually steady the rocking boat. The story can be either fiction or peddled as non-fiction. The truth is that non-fiction stories, perhaps based on true events, are created using dramatic story-telling techniques aimed at hooking your emotions so you’ll keep watching or reading.
I have been thinking about the popularity of conspiracy theories, many of which suggest that Big Government, Big Business, and even Big Illuminati actually control life for the rest of us. They are always doing rotten things to enslave us peons to do their bidding while they bask in the wealth of anything money can buy.
An issue I see with conspiracy theories is that we seem to burn up a lot of energy attempting to solve the riddles rather than working to solve the issues. Did some part of the US Government plan 9/11? Is some tippy-top-secret agency hiding UFO news? Is Monsanto poisoning everybody? For that matter, what about Big Pharma?
Conspiracy theories, which at their core are conflict stories, goad us into fear. They are staples of any media entity in the business of attracting viewers, readers, clickers. The game now is to mislead people with dramatic techniques so they’ll pay attention. Day by day, hour after hour, people are being tempted to turn their attention to stories of conflict, many of which turn out to be manufactured gotchas!
I think that the importance of this is recognizing how we handle real conflicts that affect us personally. How many ordinary people are unconsciously taking the lead from the media and are themselves parroting these conflict strategies? How many people are making up their own conspiracy theories because this is what the media by example has taught them to do?
My Facebook feed has become a parade of nightmare scenarios about calamity. Between all the clickbait (misleading headlines that beckon clicking on the link), sob stories, and rants, Facebook has become the new National Enquirer.
I subscribe to Bookbub, an ebook service that offers cheap prices on selected ebooks. Every day in my email I get an announcement about books on sale. They come with a brief description. When I look at these blurbs day after day, I see so much written about conflict. It indicates to me how much we thrive on it.
For example, there is this: “This rich saga traces the rise and fall of the Malacouti family as they face betrayal, ambition, and a painful choice in the early 20th century. ‘A riveting portrait of family strife’ (People).”
And under that one, this one: “In this richly textured novel set against the Bangladesh War of Independence, a young Pakistani widow, Rehana, strives to keep her family safe from the chaos that surrounds her. ‘An immersive, wrenching narrative’ (Publishers Weekly starred review).”
And then: After a serial killer escapes from a mental hospital to hunt down psychic Laura Adderley, can reporter Harrison Frost get to the bottom of the real story?
We don’t seem to see immersive, wrenching narratives about yummy stuff.
“An epic saga of friendship where neighbors band together to assist one another in living the good life. ‘A riveting portrait of cooperation that raises the bar on fulfillment’ (Publishers Weekly)
“Just when Sandra thought she could take not another moment of ecstasy, she discovers that she can. ‘An eye-opening narrative on cosmic pleasure’ (People)
Even when books work their way to happily triumphant endings, the fact is that by design we’re still forced by the conventions of story-telling to go through the long and winding road of turmoil. We’ve apparently decided that conflict is more riveting than solution.
FINDING THE FLIP SIDE
Certainly fear and skepticism have their places in our lives, and being prepared is always good. Yet I wonder what would happen to society as a whole if we did not cultivate so much doubt and dread, shock and awe as a normal business practice. In the end, would it create a healthier climate, or would it create a society of happy munchkins vulnerable to attack from any wicked witch flying by the neighborhood?
I like to nurture my mind. I’ve noticed that finding media that do not pander so eagerly to the conflict formula is a challenge. Inspirational, positive, solution-based media fare that feeds hope, love, and optimism is in relatively short supply. You can always find it if you specifically search for it, but there is a tsunami of conflict to deal with by contrast.
In times of personal struggle, it is good to have access to positive media. When I feel lonely, depressed, discouraged, or frustrated, I like to responsibly heal myself, a task made more challenging if I can’t find healthy input.
I believe that overexposure to messages of conflict is creating unnecessary turmoil. Garbage in, garbage out. There is so much mental cruelty being perpetrated in our information and entertainment media that I personally am not too surprised by all the violence in the world. Cause and effect seems pretty plain to me.
Often I like to fantasize about societies either in our future or on some other planet entirely where people grow up not so bombarded with messages of conflict. Maybe they grow up in a totally love-positive world where a tribe mentality dictates that no one should feel abandoned, no violence necessary, and cooperation is more important than competition. What would life be like in that world? What kind of problems would be eliminated from today’s normalcy if a few generations grew up with brains not filled with such a heavy influence of fear, violence, and losing?
Don’t take my word for it. Pay attention to what media mind food you ingest. Become aware of the messages of conflict streaming into your psyche. Once you begin to notice how people are selling you conflict, you might become more motivated to watch what your brain eats.