In 2022, it felt like there was an unending barrage of stories about people snapping in public. Every day or two there seemed to be a story of someone who became verbally and/or physically abusive with frontline employees at a store, a restaurant, an airport, etc. The best term I can use to describe this is “hulking out.”
For the pop-culture unitiated, “hulking out” is the process of Dr. David Bruce Banner turning from a somewhat scrawny and mild-mannered scientist into a “giant green rage monster” that destroys anything in his path. And it feels like that’s what we’ve been seeing. Everyday people have become more likely to turn into “rage monsters.”
The media have engaged in much anguished handwringing about why this is happening. I blame “the algorithm.” The algorithm is a generic term for the algorithms that have been used by multiple media and social media sites to surface the content that gets the most engagement. In the beginning it seemed to be cat pictures, but over time it turned out to be stuff that makes us mad.
We see something we feel is patently unjust and instead of privately stewing, we share it. Donald Trump picking a fight with the parents of a dead soldier because of his fragile ego… grr. Everyone get mad with me. Biden spending trillions we don’t have on stuff we don’t need… grr. Everyone get mad with me. Self-righteous billionaires… grr. Everyone get mad with me.
We’re not only more likely to post the stuff that makes us mad, but more likely to react to others’ posts of it and more likely to spread the anger around like monkeys spreading feces on a wall. And it’s not just computer programs that have recognized that feeding us anger gets us to poop engagement. It’s politicians and journalists and influencers and snake oil salesmen. And they’re all trying to secure personal gain by pushing our buttons.
And we are not only subjected to a daily diet of anger and anxiety, but we feel more and more like we can’t make it better or get away from it. Did someone who annoys the bejeezus out of you get re-elected in November? Is the economy getting worse or better? Are layoffs becoming more or less commonplace? Are we having more or fewer extreme weather events? Are you upset by the people who won’t wear masks in public… or by the people who insist you should?
So if we’re all feeling 50% angrier and 50% more helpless to do anything about the political and cultural irritants that are making us angry, how much closer are we to hulking out? Are people more entitled or selfish? Or is it just that SO many more people are one straw away from their emotional camel collapsing? And when the emotional camel’s back breaks… Hulk smash.
Long ago, I read a book called The Road Less Travelled. At that time, it seemed like I couldn’t have a discussion with my mother without it turning into a fight. Something in the book about patterns of communication stood out to me. My mother and I had fallen into a pattern of baiting each other. We’d trained ourselves to communicate in this manner. I expressed this to her and said I would stop trying to bait her and would no longer take her bait, and through this I hoped we could have more meaningful communication and a more loving relationship.
We cannot force others to change. We can only change ourselves.
I can’t stop politicians from saying stupid things. I can’t stop racists from being racist. But I can try to turn the incoming torrent of outrage into a trickle and then keep that stuff to myself. I can try to reduce the burden I put on my emotional camel so I’m less at risk of hulking out in 2023, and by doing so I can reduce the amount of straws I put on the backs of the emotional camels of my friends and family.
We can’t make the media and algorithms and shady marketers and politicians stop trying to bait us. We can only become happier and less at risk of hulking out by working on not taking the bait.