Editorial: Unplugging from media ignores civic responsibilities

(Photo by Thomas Yang | Visual Editor)

Whether it’s reports of an adult film performer’s lawsuit against the president or the all-too-consistent drumbeat of mass shootings in the country, following the news is becoming more and more an exercise in mental strength.

In an environment like this, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to react in much the same way as Erik Hagerman, an Ohio man profiled this weekend in The New York Times. He cut himself off completely from updates about the outside world after Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He refers to the solitude of his farm as “The Blockade,” where he lives alone, ignores social media and listens to white noise in public to avoid overhearing scraps of political conversations.

Hagerman’s approach to politics probably appeals to a large number of people disturbed by the chaotic seisms of the Trump administration. He points out the benefits to his mental health that have come about because of his broad ignorance of the news.

But just because disconnecting might offer some temporary relief doesn’t make it a responsible choice. And in a country where people with social status and privileges can have an outsized influence on the dialogue, it’s hard to see how citizens who completely ignore the problems in our society are anything short of colluders.

Of course, there are some legitimate concerns about the pressures of a media diet without breaks. The Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan pointed out in an article Sunday how digital news media leads to headaches and information overload for readers. Countless think pieces in recent years have linked an internet-based media diet to moral and mental exhaustion, and there’s undeniably some level of truth there.

But that isn’t the whole story. Even Hagerman himself admits that his reclusion from the rest of the world is a decision that comes from a place of privilege and seems to recognize that his total withdrawal from civil society goes too far — and does real harm. To his mind, he can counteract this damage by cultivating a parcel of forest near his farm as a wildlife preserve.

The gesture is a nice one. But it’s one that’s unlikely to make a significant impact on any of the environmental problems it’s presumably meant to address. It’s one of the few actions available to someone like Hagerman who’s intentionally cut himself off from the news, and that says something significant about how he’s positioned himself in regard to following the world outside. In short, he isn’t pulling his weight.

People who belong to marginalized groups have less of an ability to unplug from national discussions like Hagerman has because the issues at hand directly affect them. And those who can afford to avoid them typically have greater social power. Simply abdicating that power might help the individual, but it certainly doesn’t help anyone else.

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