- Media companies gain viewers by stoking anger.
- Bad diets may be disrupting our moods and social life.
- The combination may be maximizing interpersonal conflict.
“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” ― Ambrose Bierce
According to many, we are all going to hell. The end of the world is nigh. We are going to die from climate change, decadence, pandemics, immigrants, liberal media, conservative media, drugs, politicians, or plutocrats. Pick your poisons.
But I predict that we will come out of this malaise with banners waving. Why? Because betting against Armageddon is the smart move. If I’m right, I’m a prophet. If I’m wrong, well, it’s Armageddon. Who will remember?
We seem to be really pissed at each other these days, but there may be multiple weird reasons for that. For one, the news and social media have settled on fear and anger as the most potent emotions for “driving engagement”. We used to go to horror movies for a good scare, but The Chainsaw Massacre is tame compared to today’s social media. I can swipe left as fast as the next person, but I’ve still seen things I can’t unsee. All of this to sell us some cereal.
Compared to violence and fear-mongering, sober discussion doesn’t stand a chance. Science and tech are suspect, even though they are the only way forward. Who cares about that stuff? There is more money to be made pitting people against each other. There’s even a formula for it: Find the craziest characters in the opposing camp and present them as exemplars of the movement. This formula is called “nut-picking”, and it's the primary weapon of the culture wars, allowing each side to scorn the other side’s bozos with perfect justification. Are you not entertained?
There may be some merit in riling ourselves up, if it gets us off our butts to fix things that are broken. But anger is a stupid brute and it can mess you up. We tend to fear what we don’t understand, so the things that wind us up the tightest are typically the things we understand the least. This is not ideal.
Mark Twain said, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” There is a limit to how much anger we can bear, and we may have reached it. We should wonder: does this really help to sell cereal?
The media and politicians are whacked. But there is another, even stranger, force at play. Our diet has changed over the last 50 years, and it has altered the miniature ecosystem of microbes that live in our gut. These gut microbes can “talk” to us in several ways, but the fastest route is through the vagus nerve. Microbes can signal the health of our gut by producing dopamine and serotonin. They can also tell us when our gut is unbalanced by producing toxins and inflammation that can make us depressed, anxious, and even psychotic. These are the startling revelations of gut-brain research.
In other words, our crappy processed foods are making us antisocial, and better primed to pick a fight than a flower. Add this to a pushy, violent media and you have a toxic stew.
I live in Ohio, famously split down the left-right divide. I have good friends on both sides. If I asked them, most of them would drive hours to pull me out of the mud, and bring me a beer to boot.
There are plenty of things we love in common: family, nature, movies, music, and more. They all have American spunk and creativity. But some of them would like to eviscerate the others.
Still, I’m positive they could all come together in a moment if the flames of hatred could be dialed down a notch. But how? Two ideas come to mind:
- Stop listening to angry people.
- Stop eating crap.
In line with these edicts, it’s time to quit demonizing our neighbors, especially if they are good cooks. Honestly, if you love tamales and enchiladas, how can you hate Mexicans? Persian food? My Iranian neighbors moved years ago and I’m still mourning the loss of their amazing kebabs.
Food is the perfect equalizer. It’s hard to quarrel when you have a mouth full of deliciousness. The ignorance at the heart of fear dissipates when you break naan with someone new.
Eat for your gut microbes as well. To keep them happy, treat them to a lot of veggies and ferments like yogurt and sauerkraut. Eat a variety of foods to increase the diversity of your gut microbes. Diversity is the key to gut health, which may be the best defense against a crazy world that is purposely trying to make us angry and afraid.
Americans have come together before, and when we do we are formidable. At our best moments we are proud to be a melting pot, and we benefit enormously from thousands of wildly different perspectives. Diversity is our super-power. Like the microbes in our gut, diversity ensures a healthy, resilient ecosystem. That’s what it takes to solve the problems that vex us. Those problems are what deserve our anger, not the people around us who will help to fix them.
War is great for arms dealers, and crappy for everyone else. It adds friction to transactions and cuts into profits. People under siege can’t buy cereal. Capitalism, for all its excess, loves peacetime, not conflict. The good news is that we are already seeing advertisers peel away from negative media. Fear mongering as a business model may have its limits.
Our children and their children are waiting to see which path we take: Do we break up in fear and anger, or stride into the future together? This should not be a tough decision. We can make a better world tomorrow if we want to. Just hug it out. And eat your veggies.
Cryan JF, O'Riordan KJ, Cowan CSM, Sandhu KV, Bastiaanssen TFS, Boehme M, Codagnone MG, Cussotto S, Fulling C, Golubeva AV, Guzzetta KE, Jaggar M, Long-Smith CM, Lyte JM, Martin JA, Molinero-Perez A, Moloney G, Morelli E, Morillas E, O'Connor R, Cruz-Pereira JS, Peterson VL, Rea K, Ritz NL, Sherwin E, Spichak S, Teichman EM, van de Wouw M, Ventura-Silva AP, Wallace-Fitzsimons SE, Hyland N, Clarke G, Dinan TG. The Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis. Physiol Rev. 2019 Oct 1;99(4):1877-2013. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00018.2018. PMID: 31460832.