It is hard not to pay attention to people who are screaming for your attention. It’s hard to manage your own attention in the best of circumstances; sages have for thousands of years been directing our attention to attention, and still we are easy marks for those who would control our minds by misdirecting our attention.
We pay attention: The metaphor is important. When we pay attention we give a share of one of our limited resources to someone or something else. We can get something in return, or not. Largely we get to decide what we want to pay attention to.
This resource — attention — is valuable to others. Your attention is valuable to your spouse, to your children, to your friends; they are likely to appreciate it and to repay you in their own attention. Your attention is also valuable to people trying to sell you things (if they don’t have your attention, they can’t), to people who crave attention for its own sake, and, in a negative sense, to those who want you not to notice certain things. These people are not going to give you a fair return on your attention.
It is hard for us not to pay attention to what the government, corporations, and other sociopathic things tells us is important, even though we get no return for our invested attention. We engage in endless arguments over questions that make nobody’s life better, and the only winners are those who want our attention focused on those questions, or not focused on their hands in our pockets or the chains they are fastening to our ankles.
Things that cause emotional responses attract more of our attention. If a stimulus makes us happy or sad or disgusted or afraid, we pay attention to it. We like to feel happy, and we think we don’t like to feel said or disgusted or afraid, but our behavior — paying attention to things that make us sad or disgusted or afraid — suggests that all of these emotions attract us.
Fear might attract us more than the other emotions
How, then, can we not pay attention to people who set out to make us afraid? Especially when they evoke an ancient evil? Especially when they are armed?
It is hard.
But parents and dog owners know that it is hard to deprive a misbehaving child or dog of attention, and yet they know that that is the proper response to acting up. Because attention (measured in strokes, by the way, which could connote a velvet glove or an iron rod) is sometimes the only reward that the erring critter is looking for, and if you stop giving the critter strokes, eventually the misbehavior will stop.
It is hard, but necessary. There’s no other way to stop the bad behavior. But what if you aren’t the only person whose attention they seek? The media are going to pay attention to those screaming for attention; this can’t be helped. You can’t control others’ behavior, so if everyone else is paying attention to them, you might as well.
The same argument applies to all ethical questions: You can’t stop everyone else from doing x, so why not do x yourself? I find Kant’s Categorical Imperative to be a compelling response: Act in such a way that the world would be a better place if everyone did the same.