By Paul V. DeMarco
The root cause of America’s obesity epidemic and the rise of political polarization are linked. The former is due to unhealthy food choices, the latter to unhealthy media ones. A side effect of living in a developed country where food and media are inexpensive and widely available is that we consume too much of the insalubrious types of both.
Our news and opinion diet is often filled with transiently satisfying but non-nutritive calories, producing a mental obesity. We pick up our phones and succumb to the same temptation that a bakery case provides.
Certain habits put you at risk for physical obesity. If someone eats fast food frequently, regularly consumes high-calorie snacks, and rarely exercises, he or she is at high risk for being obese. Similarly, if someone watches long periods of cable news that offer a liberal or conservative bias, solidifies that bias by viewing social media with that same slant, and does not expend the mental energy to challenge himself or herself with other viewpoints, mental obesity is likely.
One unique difficulty in combatting mental obesity is that it is hard to recognize in ourselves. There is no scale for this type of obesity. Try this as a diagnostic tool: Pick any common policy disagreement and cogently argue it from the other side. If you are pro-life, explain why someone might rationally choose abortion. If you are pro-choice, explain why someone might rationally oppose it. The inability (or lack of desire) to accept that people with whom you disagree are not universally evil, crazy, stupid or un-American is a cardinal symptom.
Most importantly, what do we do about it? The treatment of physical and mental obesity is similar.
For most of our history, Americans received our news in aliquots: newspapers, radio news at the top of the hour, TV evening news. In my early adulthood in the 1980s, before cable news was ubiquitous, a common pattern was to read the morning paper, go the whole day without any interruption by current events, come home and read the evening paper and/or watch the evening news. We weren’t hounded by “breaking news” that was neither, or sent unsolicited push notifications. The wonder of finding the latest score or stock price comes with an invisible threat to our mental health if we aren’t conscientious internet consumers. We become angrier, less tolerant, and more partisan, the chronic diseases associated with wanton media overconsumption.
Consume the Rainbow
Healthy plates are often filled with color. The wholesome green of vegetables and the many colors of a fruit salad are indications of their goodness. If your information diet is monochrome, take heed.
When I give patients medical advice, it is often based on what I try to apply (albeit imperfectly) in my own life. My advice here will be the same. I still get the newsprint edition of the Florence Morning News (I’m going to pause for a moment to let my younger readers’ laughter quiet). It’s a nice way to ease into the daily news. The articles are usually right down the middle, written by local reporters or the Associated Press. Then, properly nourished, I will often listen to the conservative talk radio show, “Wake Up Carolina,” on the drive to work. The show’s host, former lieutenant governor Ken Ard, and I have many things in common. We are both are husbands and fathers, we love our families, and we care deeply about our neighbors in the Pee Dee. We occasionally text about the issues of the day and share a mutual respect. Our political opinions are often at odds. For example, we disagree completely about Anthony Fauci, whom I admire and whom Ken wants to fire.
Our disagreements are not always so stark. Sometimes we find common ground, as when he talks about the plight of America’s blue-collar workers. Do I slap my head in frustration some mornings? Yes, but that’s the point. Ken is an opinion commentator, who is not bound to journalistic standards. The fact that he has many faithful listeners who trust him makes him someone I want to hear. If you listen to someone with whom you agree completely, you have accomplished nothing by having your already formed opinion buttressed. It’s the mental equivalent of mindlessly eating a bag of chips.
I balance “Wake Up Carolina” with NPR. I check the Fox News app and then the CNN app, recognizing the biases of both those outlets. I have digital subscriptions to the Washington Post and The New York Times. My next purchase will be the Wall Street Journal. I’m only hesitating because it gets expensive after the first year and I’m not sure I’ll have time to read it. I listen to podcasts of all stripes, and enjoy the depth and nuance that can be conveyed in that format. And of course, when I want scintillating opinion pieces and erudite commentary, I come here.
If you were my obese patient, I’d have some gentle advice and encouragement for you. As your columnist, I also have some instruction. If you agree with me most of the time, I prescribe regular exposure to a more conservative columnist. If you read my column every month and our stances often differ, I’m pleased. Consider me informational broccoli. Now, treat yourself (briefly) to a news source with which you agree.
Paul DeMarco is a physician who resides in Marion, S.C. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this column (sadly without the reference to this blog) appeared in the Florence Morning News on 3/2/22.