We Learn Nothing

I’m quite enjoying satirical cartoonist and essayist Tim Krieder’s book We Learn Nothing, a wonderfully insightful book about human nature.

Consider this excerpt:

Once I realized I enjoyed anger, I noticed how much time I spent experiencing it. If you’re anything like me, you spend about 87 percent of your mental life winning imaginary arguments that are never actually going to take place. …

It seems like most of the fragments of conversation you overhear in public consist of rehearsals for or reenactments of just such speeches: shrill, injured litanies of injustice, affronts to common sense and basic human decency almost too grotesque to be borne: “And she does this shit all the time! I’ve just had it!” You don’t even have to bother eavesdropping; just listen for that unmistakable high, whining tone of incredulous aggrievement. It sounds like we’re all telling ourselves the same story over and over: How They Tried to Fuck Me Over, sometimes with the happy denouement: But I Showed Them! So many letters to the editor and comments on the Internet have this same tone of thrilled vindication: these are people who have been vigilantly on the lookout for something to be offended by, and found it.

We tend to make up these stories in the same circumstances in which people come up with conspiracy theories: ignorance and powerlessness. And they share the same flawed premise as most conspiracy theories: that the world is way more well planned and organized than it really is. They ascribe a malevolent intentionality to what is more likely simple ineptitude or neglect. Most people are just too self-absorbed, well-meaning, and lazy to bother orchestrating Machiavellian plans to slight or insult us. It’s more often a boring, complicated story of wrong assumptions, miscommunication, bad administration, and cover-ups—people trying, and mostly failing, to do the right thing, hurting each other not because that’s their intention but because it’s impossible to avoid.

Obviously, some part of us loves feeling 1) right and 2) wronged. But outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but, over time, devour us from the inside out. Except it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure. We prefer to think of it as a disagreeable but fundamentally healthy reaction to negative stimuli, like pain or nausea, rather than admit that it’s a shameful kick we eagerly indulge again and again, like compulsive masturbation.