My friend Lucy refuses to read any books in which something terrible happens. We have been arguing about this for years. Books, I say, are there to teach us about life, process our feelings, understand the human condition. Tragedy is an inevitable part of life, so it is an essential theme in books. She – a hugely intelligent, wise and book-obsessed scholar – just shrugs and says, “I don’t care, Hughes. I’m not having it.” Some months ago, I spent 20 pointless minutes trying to reason with a blogger who never, ever watches the news, reads newspapers or listens to current-affairs shows because “it’s all too depressing”. I thought her irresponsible, gleefully ignorant and irrational. She thought herself, well, happy.
I finally understood where each was coming from on Wednesday November 9, when, having stayed up all night to watch the presidential results, I realised I couldn’t turn on the TV. I couldn’t bear to look on Twitter, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that everyone in my echo-chamber feed was bound to agree that the world as we knew it was ending. The radio stayed on 6 Music. I still haven’t seen Trump’s victory speech, nor Hillary’s concession (Instagram pull-quotes notwithstanding), and have avoided all punditry on the result. A few days after the election, when I boarded my flight to Canada (for work, not emigration – but let’s not rule it out), I actually turned my face away from the free newspaper stand in case I glimpsed the headlines or a picture of Trump or even Clinton (the very thought of whom, at this point, is heartbreaking). I arrived in liberal, incredulous Canada just in time to catch Barack on the hotel telly, wearing the mother of all rictus grins for his photocall with the President-elect. Trump couldn’t look him in the eye and nor could I. I just flipped to QVC and watched some faux Christmas trees and festoon lights.
Some things, it seems, are just too painful to endure and even moderate exposure to Trump and Farage’s grotesque faces and smug voices still feels intolerable
For the first time in some 30 years as a news junkie, I have metaphorically put my hands over my ears and cried, “Lalalalalala, can’t hear you,” and I’m not sure when I will lower them again. Some sort of defence mechanism has kicked in and I’ve instinctively shielded myself from the horror by pretending it’s not there. It’s precisely the opposite reaction I had to Brexit, when I consumed rolling news almost exclusively for the best part of a month and essentially sent myself crackers. Miserable, despairing and in a cortisol-fuelled state of anxiety, I still felt it my duty to know what was going on and would probably have poured scorn on those acting like such a world-changing event was no biggie. Analysis, op-ed columns, stats, graphs, polls and speculation – the sicker I felt, the more I swallowed. It was just being a properly engaged citizen. Except this, my ostensibly pathetic post-Trump denial, may actually, it turns out, be a healthier approach.
British psychologist Dr Graham Davey specialises in studying the effects of negative news on our lives and has warned that, as well as making us anxious, sad and depressed (especially if we’re already prone or predisposed), negative news directly impacts how we interpret and interact with the world around us. We have a natural negative news bias that causes us to focus primarily on the bad, however dreadful that makes us feel. We perceive the world to be a worse place than it is, real threats cause us to see more where perhaps they don’t exist. In current and layman’s terms: the constant bad news (and 2016 must surely be the record holder on that score?) may cause us to think everything is terrible when, in reality, it isn’t and that affects how we feel and behave in our everyday lives. It’s certainly true that Brexit made me feel negatively towards British people generally, when almost half of them wanted to remain.
Davey isn’t a lone voice in his field. Dr Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a US psychologist who studies the connection between stress and the media, believes it’s essential to turn off the news regularly, even as huge news stories develop, for the sake of our own mental wellbeing. I’m just not ready to go there. Some things, it seems, are just too painful to endure and even moderate exposure to Trump and Farage’s grotesque faces and smug voices still feels intolerable. And so, as these coming weeks unfold, I will not be watching Question Time or Newsnight, or screaming at the wireless or arguing with some lunatics in Tulsa trolling anyone who doesn’t think a crooked millionaire without the first idea how to govern is our saviour. I will be drinking wine, ordering curries and cramming Broad City box sets. Just not the Hillary Clinton episode. That, I’ll have to skip right past.