We live in a culture awash with outrage. Whether it’s liberals versus conservatives, feminists versus “old white guys,” or almost anything else, it seems that everyone is doing everything possible to generate outrage against people on the other side of the aisle. (Image: Charles Le Brun, Wikimedia, courtesy of Wellcome Collection.)
Not that this is anything new. In a 2009 article in The Washington Post, Rick Perlstein listed examples going all the way back to the 1920s. “[T]he similarities across decades are uncanny,” he wrote, adding:
“My personal favorite? The federal government expanded mental health services in the Kennedy era, and one bill provided for a new facility in Alaska. One of the most widely listened-to right-wing radio programs in the country, hosted by a former FBI agent, had millions of Americans believing it was being built to intern political dissidents, just like in the Soviet Union.”
Perlstein was directing his criticism toward purveyors of right-wing outrage, but it’s not one-sided. When I started this paragraph, I hit up rightwingwatch.org, and found that only minutes before, it had posted the trailer to an upcoming conservative documentary whose poster featured a cartoon of Obama waving an American flag while concealing a hammer and sickle behind his back. Obama supporters, I was sure, would find this outrageous. But is it any worse than a 2006 left-wing political cartoon in which someone Photoshopped Elvish script onto George W. Bush’s wedding band, under the header “Frodo Failed. Bush has the Ring.”
Not that this drumbeat of outrage confined to politics. But what I’m interested in is a much more underlying issue: our culture’s insistence on substituting demonization for debate, outrage for self-examination.
Blogger Fred Clark, who publishes under the name Slacktivist, has a name for this state of perpetual outrage. He calls it “IndigNation” and views it as a type of addiction: an emotional drug that makes people “intoxicated by finding or manufacturing reasons to self-righteously puff themselves up with artificial umbrage.”
That in itself also isn’t new; history is replete with examples of self-righteous pride. But it’s exacerbated by the increasing interconnectedness of blogs, social media, and traditional news outlets.
I have friends whose Facebook posts seem to be nothing but one long stream of outrages, whether about some guy who cut them off in traffic or the latest Olympic drug cheat. And if a simple post to friends can produce dozens of “likes” and nearly as many comments, how much more attention can one draw with a post about what “they” are doing to “kill-unborn-babies/take-away-abortion rights,” “provide-affordable-health-care/deny-religious-freedom,” “destroy-traditional-marriage/protect-constitutional-equality,” “protect-religious-liberty/persecute-Christians,” or any of the other issues that divide us?
One way to get noticed is to say something outrageous.
An even more effective way is by pointing to someone else saying something outrageous.
The Internet has exacerbated this by making it easy to trawl the other side’s postings for potential sources of outrage, even if many of these posts were always intended as hyperbole, even to their target audiences.
Political cartoons, after all, are rarely subtle. The problem is that our side’s hyperbole looks like humor, while the other side’s looks like deadly insult.
Not that this means there aren’t injustices that really should be exposed. Racism, sexism, and a lot of other –isms are indeed real. But if Clark is correct, righteous anger and IndigNation aren’t the same thing. IndigNation is counterfeit righteousness. It’s done to make us feel good about ourselves.
Outrage is a complex emotion. It stems from the sense that one of our core values has been breached. More than that, it carries the sense that the person breaching that value is getting away with it. The guy who cuts you off in traffic? Who does he think he is!? The drug-cheating athlete? She’s trying to steal an Olympic berth from someone else. Make an example of her so nobody will dare do it again!
But if Clark is right, America’s infatuation with outrage isn’t about redressing wrong: it’s about creating excuses to feel self-righteous. As far back as 2005, science fiction author David Brin suggested that this might even be a form of “self-addiction” that warranting serious study by neuroscientists.
But it’s also possible for us to let others manufacture indignation for us, says Art Markman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas, Austin.
Markman notes that the moment you claim outrage, you shift an issue from the realm of rational discussion into a moral arena so fraught with emotion that most people are reluctant to discuss it in depth. “That’s a clever move for a politician,” he warned in a 2008 blog post for Psychology Today.
Another way in which outrage shuts off discussion, Markman says, is by signaling affiliation—marking you as a member of a tribe or club whose morals are highly enough developed to find the event in question morally repugnant.
Clark adds that outrage is an intoxicating way to feel morally superior, imputing to our opponents moral failures so base that no right-thinking person could ever have anything to do with them.
He compares it to stirring up outrage over kitten burning. “Burning kittens is…quite simply evil,” he says. But other than a few psychopaths, nobody does it. That means denouncing kitten-burning is not only a waste of time, but actively wrong, because it converts a make-believe faction of other people into ones you suddenly imagine as being in favor of such horrible behavior.
Clark’s example is another example of hyperbole, but his point isn’t. Any time we feel ourselves moved to outrage by the behavior of people we think of as them, have we, accidentally or deliberately, allowed ourselves to dehumanize them into kitten-burners? From what I see of American political discourse today, I fear that far too often the answer is yes.
Unfortunately, there are no magic culture-wide ways to deter the IndigNation juggernaut that threatens to derail so much of once-civil society.
But there are things that we, individually, can do.
I’ve written several articles on how to write short stories. A topic I’ve not yet covered is villains, but if you’re looking for a single bit of advice, it’s this: no stock villains. In particular, no kitten-burners.
The best writers know that every villain is the hero of his or her own story. Villains can be deluded, but unless they’re psychotic, they have motivations that make sense. They may even be partially correct. To the extent we consume only stories that forget that, we make it easier also to forget it in our real-world dealings.
Google won’t tell me who first said, “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins,” but what’s needed is something on that order. Empathy, in other words.
One way to get this is by listening…really listening…to what our opponents are saying and to quit getting information about them only from outraged members of our own tribe.
If you’re a liberal, don’t blindly trust left-leaning news outlets to tell you what the other side is saying. Go to the source. Listen or read long enough to understand what it is they’re actually saying, and why it matters to them. If you’re a conservative, venture into the liberal media and do the same.
And regardless of our source of information, we should all realize that there are multiple ways to spin it.
If the way we first hear something is calculated to produce outrage, a great exercise is to stifle that outrage, look at the situation afresh, and try to figure out how an intelligent person with a different perspective might have a different response.
I used to be a law professor, and one of the things the best lawyers learn to do is to understand the other side’s case. Not just to understand it, but to be able to argue it.
This doesn’t mean we have to agree. But if we can’t understand where the other is coming from—can’t break through the cycle of self-addicted self-righteousness to see our opponents not as kitten-burners but as human—then we are doomed to being less than the humans we ourselves could be.
It’s also the only way we can truly learn to argue our own sides with any hope of persuading our opponents. Without this kind of empathy, we have no hope of breaking out of our own little communities of self-addicted, tribalistic IndigNations.