What fresh f*ckery is this?!

Pros and Cons of the Outrage Culture

by Jacob Nordby

I had just posted an image of Morgan Freeman that included a version of a few words from a conversation he had with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes (December 2005).

Mike Wallace: “How do we stop racism?”

Morgan Freeman: “Stop talking about it. I’m going to stop calling you a white man, and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man…”

The meme had condensed the conversation and attributed these words to Morgan Freeman: “How do we end racism? You stop calling me black, and I’ll stop calling you white.”

It struck me that what he was talking about is a different way to see each other—something deeper than the semantics of black or white or brown, a call to see each other as fellow humans and truly equal. I feel that this deeper call is valid and begins to address the core issues. It challenges preconceptions and prejudices. It begins to dissolve the barriers to interacting with each other—but it doesn’t erase the uniqueness of individuals or wipe out our differences that need to be celebrated.

What happened next made my heart and stomach ache.

The comments section blew up.

People began parsing this statement and calling it such things as “the erasure of POC.” They called each other names, they called me names. They used so many trendy acronyms and phrases.

They called Morgan Freeman names for fucksake.

The atmosphere swiftly turned into a battle of outrage and shaming—a fight to see who could achieve dominance over the others in the thread by demonstrating their degree of awareness of the issue and secure higher ground.

I noticed a few things as this played out.

1). The commenters were all white (some of my African American friends saw the post and told me that they loved it, but they didn’t feel the need to get embroiled in the controversy).

2). Few were stopping to ask each other, “what do you mean by that?” or, “how do you see this?”. Curiosity and openness had fled the building. Humility was nowhere to be found. Listening was absent, too. *One notable exception was a man named Gary and we exchanged respectful notes afterwards—even though we disagreed at first. I appreciated that.

3). It seemed that these commenters were “eating their own.” Despite the fact that they all appeared to agree about the wrongs of racism, they were devouring each other in their hunger to be seen as more right than others.

I eventually realized that nothing good was going to come of the post and deleted it. This wasn’t a discussion, it was just a scene in which people were bashing each other with what felt like copy/paste opinions or regurgitated concepts. What seemed most important was that the participants demonstrate how very, very outraged and right they were. I’m not pouting about how something I posted was misunderstood. That happens all the time and it’s to be expected. I’m interested in what this experience reflects about the common level of interaction right now.

This anecdote illustrates a broad social condition—The Outrage Culture.

You might assume from how I framed the story about a post gone sideways that I’m criticizing the outrage culture.

Well… it’s not that simple.

Feelings of outrage are natural. We live in an outrageous world—unlike anything humans have experienced before. The massive rise of technology and social media means that we can be aware of situations in real-time. We can be triggered by videos and photographs of atrocities from around the world just seconds after they occur—sometimes even as they occur while people live-stream the events from their mobile devices. We are more aware of outrageous situations and our brains are bombarded by them from nearly every angle. It’s not just the newspaper or the nightly news anymore.

This gives rise to a situation in which our brains are on high alert, looking for the next bit of news to trigger a familiar feeling: outrage. It turns out that outrage can be addictive.

“Anger is one of our most widely experienced emotions, but one of the least studied and understood. What neurologists do know is that it originates in the limbic system of the brain, the centre of other base emotions like fear and desire. Situated prior to the rational evaluator that is the frontal cortex, anger primes us to act first and think later. It has direct links to your adrenal ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction. It also triggers the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. As such, dopamine is a key chemical in both sensations of enjoyment and mechanisms of addiction. This bypass of the decision-making section of your brain makes your anger response one that can easily override inhibition, avoid rational consideration, and motivate action.” From “The Outrage Machine” article by Caspar Yuill

In other words, staying angry feels good in a weird way. It also keeps us operating in a more reactive—and less rational—part of the brain.

“Anger is a common human emotion. It is a strong emotion often caused by some form of wrong-doing, ill-treatment or unfairness. We experience the feeling of anger when we think we have been mistreated, injured or when we are faced with problems that keeps us from getting what we want or attaining our personal goals. Anger, according to the cognitive behavior theory, is attributed to several factors such as:

  • Past experiences
  • Behavior learned from others
  • Genetic predispositions
  • Lack of problem solving ability

From the NATIONAL FORUM JOURNAL OF COUNSELING AND ADDICTION

“Outrage has its place as a motivational force to effect serious change,” says Yuill, “… however, knee-jerk reactions to events prompted by manipulative coverage run the risk of taking scalps merely to satisfy our sense of righteousness, or fostering aggression instead of conversation as the dominant method of problem solving.”

On the “Pros” side of our Outrage Culture, I can think of some things that are really good about it:

1). People are highly aware of unfair, unjust, and just fuckin’ unthinkably wrong situations—we aren’t ignoring these things, and that’s a good thing.

2). Groups that have been ignored or whose voices were suppressed because they used to make us uncomfortable are finding a growing audience of people willing to hear them (the Me Too movement and the current racial outcry are good examples of this, among others). This needs to happen. It’s necessary for progress. We can’t grow up as a race without it.

3). The atmosphere of foment means that we are all in the mood for change, although it’s clear that we have plenty of disagreement about exactly what must change—or how. We collectively sense that the status quo isn’t just a bad idea right now, it has become impossible. This means that we are making space for previously ignored outrages to be seen and heard. We are holding space for fundamental change to occur.

There are also “Cons”:

1). We are jumping to conclusions and reacting to each other without thinking first or taking the time to listen.

2). Outrage for outrage’s sake has become a virtue for many people. In a world gone crazy, many are feeling out of control and that they lack a purpose. Signing up for other people’s cause for outrage can offer a sense of mission—and it can help release the general feelings of helplessness and anger generated by navigating a chaotic, uncertain world. This can be a case of outrage looking for a cause.

3). Many are appropriating the legitimate outrage of other groups as their own. This is related to #2, but it asks for its own spot here. As a white male, I despise the abuse of women and the continued oppression of other races. This does not give me the right to speak for them or to pretend that I know how they feel. I have never and can never “walk a mile in their shoes.” That quickly becomes nothing more than virtue signaling and even arrogance when one presumes to speak or act for others, often without ever asking them what changes they desire to see.

4). We are developing hierarchies of outrage and shaming others who don’t see it the exact same way—or who aren’t marching, posting, protesting, donating, etc. as we think they should. “Shame,” as my friend Scott Stabile said on the phone today, “doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t heal anything. It just drives people back into hiding and they don’t get the opportunity to grow or change.”

5). Outrage is a huge expenditure of energy. It is very powerful and useful to accomplish needed change but it is not a state to exist in for long periods of time. Staying in the addictive cycle of outrage for its own sake drains us of the energy that we need to act with love within our own arms’ reach.

I can’t wrap this essay up with a prescription for how to handle these extraordinary and distressing times. We are all in this birthing process together and the pain of our contractions is overwhelming.

Speaking for myself, I feel that I can help by standing with people who have been wronged as they rise up and take the power back from institutionalized and culturally normalized oppression; I can listen to them as they speak the truth of their experiences; I can use whatever position of privilege inherent in my white maleness—and any influence I have accumulated—to support their demand for essential human freedom and dignity. I can ask them what they need and listen with humility. I can learn what my place is in the process of change. I can admit and correct my own biases and hostilities as they come to light.

Adrienne Maree Brown’s words have helped me, so I’ll share them with you now:

Thing are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

In these storms of change, let’s remember to hold each other tight as the small creatures occupying a tiny rock in the back acres of a vast universe that we are.

Jacob Nordby

Jacob Nordby

Jacob Nordby is the author of The Divine Arsonist: A Tale of Awakening, and Blessed Are the Weird – A Manifesto for Creatives. His quotes have been shared millions of times around the world. He leads the Creative UnBootcamp course for students around the world, and offers transformational group retreats and individual creative guidance sessions. His third book, The Creative Cure, is set to release by Hierophant Publishing in 2021 with a forward by Julia Cameron.

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25 Responses

  1. Very well said, Jacob. The things going on that we read about every day and see constantly on social media are definitely triggering a lot of emotions. I don’t even know how to put my feelings into words, there are so many of them and they overlap a great deal. Pain, grief, outrage, horror, sadness…and a tiny bit of hopefulness that we’re at a breaking point which is hopefully a breakthrough point.
    Thank you for verbalizing the insanity for us. We definitely need more open conversations where we all have a chance to be heard. There are questions we don’t even dare ask and we need a safe place to ask them.

  2. Brilliantly stated Jacob. Thank you for sharing your insights and experience. I have have had similar reactions to a couple posts by people I was surprised to see acting so emotionally that they narrowed their ability to see from the much wider and loving lens they normally have used.

  3. A great article, which brings to light the great anarchy of our current society.

  4. Well said, Jacob! I’m experiencing a great deal of internal grief. I mourn the loss of spirited debate. I grieve for a time when one could sit down with another and exchange ideas with the intent of sharing but also listening. One of the best parts of an exchange is listening to another’s perspective and simultaneously fine-tuning your own or even…gasp…changing your mind! There seems to be no room in our current climate for exchange. Everything feels like a monologue. Perhaps because it is! Social media is one of the worst venues to debate. It’s not in real time. It lacks any channel for noting nonverbal communication which is easily 80% of how we communicate. And it allows for keyboard warriors to bully their way into righteousness. I find it deeply depressing to live in a time with an infinite access to information and have it turn into a desert of diplomacy.

    I have considered investing time into gathering like-minded people who would consider an in-person, socially-distanced gathering periodically where ideas could be shared. Where we monitored ourselves and each other but the monitoring would not be to determine how the other should speak or how they should think. It would simply be monitoring for tone, respectful protocols and turn-taking. But to be perfectly honest, I am unsure that I could gather even half a dozen people to try this social experiment. Yet, I believe these kinds of exchanges are what will save us all from isolation in the end.

    I am waiting with bated breath to see where this world is headed.

  5. This is why I’ve stopped writing on FB – in fact, it’s affected me to the point where I haven’t written a word in weeks anywhere.
    I’ve done the bare necessities. Paid bills. Replied to emails (if I’ve had too) and for the most part, kept myself to myself.
    Tired of the obtuseness, the outrage and the comments being thrown about like bullets flung from a ging.
    I’ve never understood racism, just like I’ve never understood sexism, paedophilia, murder or rape.
    People are either decent folk, or their not. Sometimes a persons culture creates a lack of comprehension between peoples. However, if you sit down and take the time to understand each other, then y’all can move forward together more harmoniously.
    I’m wondering how much of this is making sense, as I am lacking in sleep big time. Apologies if it’s lacking, but I’m sure you get my drift.
    Thank you Jacob, for posting something so sensible. I feel slightly less alone in a world that seems to be slowly spiraling into madness about me.
    Stay safe, stay well, and unlike me, keep writing please.

  6. I think what is innately in us all is the cry for freedom. We want to hear and be free to respond to the inner truth that resides in each of us – to free ourselves enough to love unconditionally – ourselves first and another the same. We’ve made a quiet agreement to let ourselves be oppressed by fear and that’s the bartering of a slavery/ master system we’ve been living in and is now coming down. the outcome of that bargain – is a compromised truth of ourselves and others. We are one. But that truth is what we’ve agreed to compromise and that’s slavery to the lie of separation. Weve been the oppressed and the oppressor somewhere in each of us. It’s called an ego-fear-based belief that we can oppress another and not go without being a slavery to that power over another ourselves. Whether I’m the uniformed police with my knee on someone’s throat or the person under that knee – both are in fear and both want freedom. You can’t hang another with a rope without the other end of that rope around your own ankle. It’s uncomfortable and chaotic to watch- but necessary – as the system build on fear falls away and love frees both the oppressed and the oppressor. We are going through a rebirth as a people from many to one. From death and ashes to rebirth like the Phoenix coming out of the ashes.

  7. What people want to hear and what they need to hear can be very, very different things. I think sometimes the pimple needs to be squeezed (no matter what dermatologists say) in order for it to start to heal. Sometimes creating outrage is not such a bad thing as it brings things to light. Never stop bringing things to light Mr Nordby, you do it so well!!

  8. Thank you Jacob for putting down on paper what every one needs to read, and I mean every fkn one of us. We are a species of caring more about ourselves than anyone or thing after us. It is not new, we have been like this for many years and only beginning to realise how we have behaved. There were devastating bushfires and droughts where I live, I lived through SARS and now this pandemic. These are not "fresh f*ckery". These have been going on for many years and until some things change there will always be outrage.

  9. I also think that we embrace these extreme emotions because they give us an identity. Until one finds a replacement for that identity, it will continue to blossom and provide the security one needs to feel the 5 A’s. Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection and Allowing. We find groups and relationships which often lead to belief systems looking to fill those needs. I am going to share something here as well that I think we are seeing in play as people align themselves with a belief. I spent 10 years in a cult that used devious programming and mind control techniques that are highly successful. Once you identify so strongly with a belief that you no longer question, or cannot allow yourself to question, you are trapped.
    Our belief systems are not fixed; should not be fixed, but that is where we drop the ball. Instead of moving through a belief, taking what works for us and letting go of the rest, we grab onto it and make it a part of us. Anyone who does not agree is a threat, because it threatens your identity and everything you believe.
    I think the only way to break down these walls is to make it safe for people to explore new ideas; to discuss with those who do not agree in a safe forum, and may be a little crack opens up and allows a new idea to germinate. As we mature spiritually, and psychologically we will learn to love ourselves, accepting our weaknesses and as a result it is easier to accept others weaknesses, and hopefully our collective consciousness will grow as well, but it feels like we are so very far away from that.
    On another note; I am reading the most amazing book about the issue of race, I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown, and I realize how much more work I have to do on myself. Until our nation acknowledges the ugly side of our history, stop glorifying it, educate our children on the true history and why it is not something to be proud of, we will continue to have those who believe a person’s skin color defines them.

  10. Indeed. All that anger & rage makes me want to hide. Thanks Jacob, for writing this. Big hugs & much love 💙✌🏽💙

  11. Thank you for this essay. The piece about outrage being addictive rings so true. It seems that people are going around looking for their next outrage fix, and it feels like doing something, but it’s only feeling something. Great perspective.

  12. The world changed.. NOW is the time to CHOOSE what we can add to OUR life that will make this reality more fun and caring and BE the invitation for others..
    mmm how about Mexico City?! I mean now that you’re planning on moving!
    Thanks for this! Really hope I get a chance to meet you in person some day!

  13. We have come to understand the reptile part of the brain as coming from trauma and causing more trauma. It’s a vast sinking hole in our collective psyche from which we had best find a way out. Observance without reaction seems to be the only cure. It can experience outrage as it passes. This can make way for introspection, which can be the path to inner change. We can only change the self. But that takes the ability to shut one’s mouth—that hole in everyone’s head.

  14. Wonderful! I needed this & will share it with someone else who needs it too! “People are crazy & times are strange!” 🎶

  15. Well put thanks for sharing. Like Andrew said below, I have done my best to live my life by one rule since I walked out of a church when I was 15 – "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" – my motto and creed to live by. We are all one – the human race.

  16. I have a general problem with # (identity politics) outrage culture in that while it creates short term recognition and highlights certain issues specifically these movements are unlikely to make lasting or sustainable changes to peoples minds. There never appears to be an educational aspect to these movements to affect change to those that require real change. They also appear to be generally localised and do not have universal appeal

    This takes a much longer term, global solution where tolerance to all with different perspectives or physical attributes must become the norm. And that is where the Morgan Freeman meme actually does serve a purpose that I like; it makes you think and teaches tolerance.

    From Confucian times (551–479 BC) the concept of the Golden Rule (the ethic of reciprocity) has become encompassed in most religions but likely, the least most observed. That is; “to treat others as you want them to treat you” would promote tolerance and understanding and allow for all differences to acceptable. For this to become an educational norm in schools, places of worship and workplaces on a day-to-day basis would be a brilliant start in creating a longer term (universal) culture of tolerance and understanding and deflecting the # outrage culture

  17. Thanks Jacob for sharing your perspective. I am so saddened to see the division in our world. I am fine with people not seeing things the way I do but u am not fine with those that want to fight about whatever is informs of them. I had someone ask me the other day what do we do with all that is going on. My response was to not stop loving, forgiving and surround yourself with good people. We ride this storm out together.

  18. Most excellent. Thanks for bringing to articulation my own thoughts that I have been a bit reluctant to put out there. And for reminding me of the addictive nature of outrage.

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