Lost In Catharsis

(By the way if you think Catharsis is a city in Egypt, I am ashamed for you.)

So I’m hoping to get back to posting more than updates here, now that the book is moving forward (final draft coming, I hope . . .) and I wanted to discuss some of my recent observations on culture.

We witness a screaming match among friends, watch an internet discussion degenerate into (or start at) rage and bigotry, a friend or family member appears to start a conversation and then just rant about someone or something. Everyone seems to be busy shouting, yelling, and venting, and you’d kind of like them to shut the hell up (but don’t want to yell about it and add to the problem).

Lately, I’ve been wondering about the state of communication in America, originally centering on the internet and its notorious lack of dialogues and overabundance of flame wars. Having heard how Popular Science cut comments, witnessing sleazy click bait tactics to cause controversy, watching online conversations not be conversations, I began asking, basically, what the hell is wrong with people.  Where’s all the yelling coming from?

Then as I continued, I began noticing similar behaviors outside of internet discussions. Sure there’s the screaming on television, but there’s also the screaming face-to-face, politicians who appear to have their mouths wired to a random idiocy generator, emo posturing that’s more performance art, and columns that are just rants published “professionally.”

It made me wonder is anyone actually talking? Conversing, communicating, interfacing, changing, growing, something? Anything?

Well, of course they are, but it’s sort of easy to note when it’s not happening. So of course, I began developing a theory. A kind of theory.

The internet, and a lot of people and cultures have a catharsis problem.  I think America definitely does.  Here’s the conclusions I’ve come to:

  • First, a lot of people are seeking catharsis. They don’t want to talk, they want to vent their spleen, get it out of their system, and possibly get some attention to boot.  This is normal.
  • Secondly, catharsis is sort of enshrined in our culture, there’s supposedly something admirable about going on a rant/rampage/etc. (as long as it’s on the RIGHT subjects of course).  I think this may relate to anti-intellectualism, that somehow ranty anger is superior to thinking.
  • Third, catharsis is rewarded in attention – including ad hits, power over others people congregate around their own grievances, and even election to judge by some of our more insane politicians.
  • Fourth, catharsis tends to attract confirmation, so it just gets reinforced. Because the people disgusted with you either give up on you or begin venting themselves.
  • Fifth, catharsis is rarely challenged and is hard to challenge, so the mere act of ranting may confirm people’s own biases as no one “calls them” on it (or just calls them an idiot).

So, basically we’re in a society that encourages and even rewards venting over conversation.  A sort of Moral Hazard issue of a**sholeness.

Adopting that viewpoint has made things a lot clearer to me – asking when someone or some group is really talking versus just having emotional flatulence. It explains why many comments sections end up being depressing and unhelpful, or why I enjoyed my experiments in cross-blog communication because they were.  This is a pretty useful theory.

Ultimately this enshrining of catharsis is, obviously, destructive and self-amplifying. We’ve seen many an online meltdown I’m sure, and at times when we watch crazy politicians, pundits, and preachers, we wonder what real-life meltdowns are to come (or have occurred and will only pop up in an embarrassing and traumatic investigation).

But also catharsis occupies the mental and personal space that can be used to do something constructive. Yes, we need catharsis, but catharsis is lancing the wound or opening the door – it doesn’t actually achieve anything beyond the immediate moment. Beyond the moment is when we need to actually do things.

Enshrining catharsis pushes out getting s*it done.

Catharsis’ use in the realm of actually doing stuff is perhaps a purge or a warning sign that you better fix things, but it’s rarely productive.  When it’s encouraged and rewarded, it gets in the way of actually achieving something – like, say, fixing the things that make people so worked up they need cathartic moments.

Now when I look at internet arguments and the like I ask “what’s going to get done here” or “what solutions are proposed” or “what solution can I propose.”  It’s an interesting – and at times depressing – viewpoint.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.