Last year, I wrote a column about the U.S. World Cup team and the unexpected lesson it taught us on its march to world domination: Our greatest weapon is our attention and how we choose to wield it.
The U.S. team understood that its dominance and fearlessness to address inequities in the sport would spark controversy and invite critics (including President Trump) to try to hijack the moment for personal gain. The team members sidestepped the usual traps — when the President turned his Twitter feed on them, they didn’t engage directly. Instead they used the spotlight it created to highlight what mattered to them: their gender-discrimination lawsuit, for one. It worked.
Their lesson feels especially resonant right now as we attempt to navigate one of the most tumultuous moments in many Americans’ lifetimes. The most privileged of us are trapped in our homes and glued to the internet, hiding from a deadly virus, and our attention appears not only frayed but also deeply unfocused (myself very much included). Our worst impulses are winning out.
Take some of the national media’s preoccupation with examining our cascading national crises through the narrow lens of free speech and cancel culture. One camp argues that the boundaries of acceptable conversation are shrinking, creating a chilling effect on speech that is “illiberal.” This crowd wrote an open letter alluding to it in Harper’s that set the internet ablaze for weeks (weeks!).
This debate is about power in an era dominated by the internet, which means it’s also, ultimately, about attention. The camp that is worried about “illiberalism” seems to understand this better than the camp arguing that the cancel-culture critics are elite public intellectual grifters.
This crowd knows that this line of argument is irresistible to the navel-gazing circles of media and politics (and opinion sections like this one). It is perfectly calibrated to spark outrage online — especially at this moment of political and social unrest. If my time shackled to online discourse has taught me anything, it’s this: Using a social media platform to argue that your voice is being silenced is an amplification cheat code, a surefire way to find an audience and turn your voice into the loudest in the room.
Some (but not all) of the free speech defenders are extremely effective attention hijackers. A cynic might argue that they saw an important national conversation where attention was focused on protest (arguably the purest exercise of one’s speech), racial justice and the concerns of frequently marginalized voices — one that they were largely on the outskirts of — and found a way to reframe that debate to once again be at its center.
Lately, I’ve been dwelling on a counterfactual: What if the ideological opponents of the free speech defenders followed the road map laid out a year ago by the U.S. women’s team? What if instead of engaging on their terms, they dismissed the argument, ignoring it altogether?
There’s a similar dynamic at play with President Trump’s pandemic news conferences, a spectacle the president started up again in an attempt to reverse his disastrous approval rating on the virus response. Because he’s the president, the national press will cover him. It doesn’t matter that he has consistently used public appearances to undermine public health advice and politicize a virus his administration seems unwilling to control. The decision to devote precious airtime — even when the impact could be harmful to public health — is framed as an obligation to “newsworthiness.” But this framing is disingenuous. Newsworthiness, as most journalists know, is a choice masquerading as an inevitability. And so networks devote airtime to the president and to his misinformation (on Wednesday he suggested children in schools won’t bring the virus home), to his cynical change in “tone” and to diversions like his relationship to a Jeffery Epstein enabler, Ghislaine Maxwell.
The American public collectively seems unable to break or divert our attention, even when we know it may be harmful to those who seek it. That seems to be the case with the recent fixation on Kanye West and his dubious presidential campaign and very public mental health breakdown. In an excellent essay, Andre Gee argued that Mr. West’s personal turmoil isn’t our entertainment (his wife argued similarly in an Instagram post on Wednesday), though many are treating it that way. Mr. Gee makes an important distinction that Mr. West shouldn’t be coddled or absolved because of his behavior, but that we should not become complicit and feed the drama — by indulging his campaign or gawking at and dunking on his manic tweeting. But because Mr. West is a towering figure in pop culture and a masterful attention seeker, we give in and give no thought to the consequences.
“True resistance,” the artist Jenny Odell wrote in her book “How to Do Nothing,” is “the ability not just to withdraw attention but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it.” What if the camp that believes cancel culture is an overhyped boogeyman followed Ms. Odell’s advice and reframed the debate so that it centered more around the issues that matter to them: a more just, inclusive, equitable discourse?
What does that even look like? What if we redirected our attention based solely on the consequences? Instead of constantly amplifying arguments we think are unworthy (simply because it feels good to mock them), what if we choose not to give them oxygen? Why not reframe the debate and set the terms of the conversation?
If we want to talk about fired newspaper editors, then how about focusing on this stat: In the first six months of 2020, more than 11,000 newsroom jobs have been lost, according to Axios. We could continually amplify the work of journalists like Margaret Sullivan, who are sounding alarm bells about the imminent death of local news. We can argue about polarization of the Twitter discourse on the terms of those who spend all day glued to it, or we can focus on the polarization and alienation that come when communities lose their local news outlets. Want to talk about illiberal chilling effects and stifled speech? How about the global attack on the independent press, from Hungary to the Philippines?
We can opine and argue with and stigmatize those who refuse to wear masks, or we can direct that time and energy toward empathetic work to understand the reasons Americans are choosing to ignore public health guidance and work to bring them onboard. We can engage and amplify essays and open letters perfectly calibrated to provoke rage, or we can bestow our attention on thoughtful, often overlooked perspectives like this one. We say we want to read and to elevate diverse voices, but we don’t always vote with our eyeballs and our shares.
Maybe this all sounds like a rendition of the cliché “Don’t feed the trolls.” Perhaps. But it’s also hard to ignore the fact that the attention hijackers seem to be thriving off the attention they’ve generated. I could not imagine a worse outcome for the free speech defenders than for their open letters and blogs to be lost in the algorithmic sea of Facebook and Twitter, buried in a news cycle awash in chaos. The same goes for the president. And diverting attention from Mr. West’s antics toward a meaningful conversation about mental health would be far more productive.
Diversion, though, requires a short-term sacrifice, often in the form of engagement. The media and popular culture thrive off attention hijackers. My Times colleague John Herrman described the phenomenon in a 2014 essay in The Awl, arguing that such spectacles generate “an enormous surplus of attention, much more than news can meet” and that “the internet’s craving for sex and humiliation is effectively infinite. This throws the Content industry into a frantic generative mode.” A self-perpetuating attention machine. Throwing a wrench in its gears means not living off the output. That, as any columnist will tell you, is scary.
Where we focus our precious attention has never been more important. “While some American men have the relative privilege to joke around about a Kanye presidency, there are many women, undocumented people, and members of the L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. community for whom the election is a literal fight for their lives,” Mr. Gee argues. “For them, the attention has to be on progress, not his ill-fated campaign or tweets.”
We are staring down an unfathomable crisis: nearly 150,000 Americans dead from a pandemic that is out of control, with no government response in sight. We’re about to confront a rolling evictions crisis, a looming financial collapse, a momentous presidential election. The existential threat of climate change remains unaddressed. Federal troops are clashing with protesters in a major American city. Threaded through each of these crises is the festering wound of systemic racism, which the country is attempting to grapple with through intergenerational national unrest.
In other words, we have every possible reason to withdraw our attention from those who greedily seek it and invest it somewhere else.
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