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
“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.