The Age of Outrage

It’s all over social media, on TV and in movies, and in other media outlets, too. It’s on our streets and in our homes, and let’s not even talk about the political arena. It even infest our communications with each other on a regular basis.

Outrage…. It’s seems to be everywhere today. Has it become the “new” normal?

I remember back in 1990-91 when I was a graduate student at a state university that the hot topic of the day was incivility as it seemed to be taking over our society. Fast forward almost thirty years now and what we called “incivility” back then is nothing compared to the outrage of today.

In the opening to a blog post published on January 15, 2019, titled, Addicted to Outrage: A Theory On How We Got Here,” by Brian Dainsberg, Lead Pastor of Alliance Bible Church, he states:

We are addicted to outrage! There are days when I feel like I’m living in a foreign land. I scan the comments’ section or social media feed of a news outlet (yes, even this blog) and I’m jerked awake stunned over the intensity of rage that can result from the slightest provocation. How did we become such an angry culture? (Quote source here.)

Indeed, how did we become such an angry culture? Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., author, speaker, researcher, pastor, church planter, Christian missiologist, and Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, has written a book on the subject titled, Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World is at It’s Worst (2018). He opens his book in the Introduction titled, “Welcome to the Age of Outrage,” with the following story (pp. xi-xiv):

“You’re a liar.”

“No, you are.”

Billy is a jerk. Billy and I grew up on the same street in Levittown, New York, and I remember this thought flying through my head just before he and I got into another one of our countless fights. I’ve edited out the expletives–it was New York, after all–but every fight always ended the same: with each of us yelling at the other and storming off. We were friends because we were neighbors, but mostly we fought. As kids, that’s how most arguments go. Yelling. Fighting. Insults. Running away.

Eventually I lost touch with Billy. If I saw him today, we might still fight, but I imagine there would be fewer expletives and tears. After all, we’ve both grown up. But when I look around at the way our world deals with conflict today, I realize culture has not.

Suddenly the go-to move of politicians and journalists has become “You’re a liar,” following by the rejoinder “No, you are.” We’re bombarded with this level of discourse every day.

And it’s filtered down (or maybe filtered up) throughout the culture. Facebook is a cesspool of conspiracy theories, straw-man arguments, and schoolyard bullying. We have reached the point where the comment sections of major newspapers are a greater testament to the depravity of man than all the theology of the Reformers put together. Many publishers have removed comments from below their online articles so the vitriol will end.

These arguments have a cumulative effect, with each successive interaction ratcheting up the outrage. Even those rare instances of well-intentioned and reasonable discussion eventually fall victim to misunderstanding and offense. In these cases, I often remember Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches one.” In other words, people eventually start comparing others to Hitler. And just like that, we are off to the races of anger, insults, and division. 

Lest we get on our high horses about all those bad, angry people out there, we need to recognize that outrage often comes from Christians [at this point Stetzer mentions the 2015 Starbucks Red Cup controversy as an example]…. Stetzer goes on to state the following.

These kinds of controversies are so frustrating! This is a foolish fight on a nonsensical issue. When outraged Christians feed media outlets with stories that make Christians look foolish, that hurts the gospel. It adds to the perception that Christians are rage-addicted snowflakes and, more important, distracts Christians from their mission. That’s what fake controversies and unwarranted anger do…. [so] don’t get outraged at things that don’t matter.

Yet outrage can just as easily be directed towards Christians by a hostile world intent on shaming and attacking rather then engaging . [At this point, Stetzer gives an example involving a publication that occurred in early 2018 which shows that this publication clearly had a bias against five Christian organizations, and the publication] made no attempts at dialogue, gave no empathy or consideration as to why these [Christian] views are important or nuanced–just blanket insults aimed at provoking division.

Outrage has no time for dialogue, and it won’t be distracted by nuance or even truth….

This is a book about outrage. It’s an acknowledgement that our world, or at least our part of it, seems awash in anger, division, and hostility. Outrage is all around, so we have to decide how to walk through this. (Quote source: “Christians in the Age of Outrage,” Introduction, pp. xi-xiv.) 

In an article titled, How Can We Stay Civil in the Age of Outrage? Here are Three Ideas,”  by Sheridan Voysey, writer, speaker and broadcaster on faith and spirituality, and the author of seven books, he writes:

In 2016 I found myself in the United States at the time of the Presidential election. Heading to Nashville airport one morning, my taxi driver told me he was thinking of voting for Donald Trump and asked me what I thought. An hour of lively but friendly debate followed. As we pulled into the airport he said sadly, “I wish we could keep driving, because I can’t have conversations like this with my fellow Americans anymore. We’re so busy shouting at each other we’ve stopped listening to one another.”

His words ring true far beyond the United States. In this moment of political polarization and escalating aggression, how can we maintain a civility that keeps us talking despite our differences? I shared three ideas on this with Chris Evans on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought segment recently, and have expanded them below.

Cultivating a Culture of Civility

When my taxi driver friend uttered his lament, I empathized. In previous months we’d seen the Brexit referendum bring its own measure of division to the UK, creating rifts even within families. A few months later I watched friends become enemies during Australia’s intense debate about marriage. Political antagonism is growing in Europe and other regions. Some have called this culturally polarized time the ‘age of outrage’. In taking a stand for our chosen cause, we’re losing civility in the process.

How can we stay neighborly in times of disagreement? After pondering that Nashville conversation, here are some commitments I want to make to pursue civility:

Treat Others With Respect, Not Contempt

First, I want to treat others with respect, not contempt. That means no name calling or insulting those I disagree with, no trying to silence them with derogatory labels or demonizing them in any way. It means:

    • Refusing to share ridiculing memes about them on social media (like Trump Baby or Sadiq Khan Baby). While there’s a place for satire, it’s best done from ‘within’ a group rather than directed at those ‘without’.
    • Checking our ideologies. Left unchecked, our political leanings can assign heroes and villains to news stories before time (notice how some on the Right ridiculed Christine Blasey Ford during the US Supreme Court saga before she’d told her story, while some on the Left judged Brett Kavanaugh guilty before he’d had a chance to defend himself). When we find ourselves quickly declaring someone a villain, it could be our conservatism, liberalism, feminism or other ideology speaking rather than facts. That doesn’t respect anyone.
    • Refusing to label others as ‘fascist’, ‘racist’, ‘Marxist’, ‘liberal’ or whatever other label works to silence their message before it’s heard.
    • Keeping any critiques of public leaders to verified behavior, not rumor.

Treat Other Viewpoints Fairly, Not Maliciously

I also want to treat other viewpoints fairly, not maliciously. That means taking time to understand them, refusing to spread half-truths about them, and acknowledging their merits, even if they don’t in total convince me. It means:

Disagree Thoughtfully, Not Defensively

And I want to disagree thoughtfully, not defensively. Some words, actions and policies should be opposed – and opposed firmly. But when passion runs hot, rashness can follow. I want to speak from a clear head. That means:

    • Staying out of the Twitter wars. As I’ve mentioned before, social media works ‘best’ when it is emotionally charged. Angry posts get more reaction, retweets and shares, but don’t necessarily foster greater clarity or civility. I don’t want to get dragged into the dysfunctional aspects of that system.
    • Stating our positions with confidence and humility, keeping open the possibility we could be wrong.

My model for all this is Jesus, who could be found having dinner with his opponents and whose nickname ‘a friend of sinners’ suggests he hung around people who broke his own moral rules. Jesus remained neighborly to those he disagreed with.

We’re in a time of important change. Stands need to be taken. But when history looks back may it also be said that we took a stand for civility too. (Quote source here.)

In a final article published on July 10, 2018, titled, Outrage is America’s Deepest Core Value. It Shouldn’t Be,” by Dylan Gallimore, writer, raconteur, creative director and content strategist | τετέλεσται, he states:

A debate is raging in America today over what role, if any, incivility should have in American culture, politics, and public life.

Many offer the argument that incivility and outrage should reign; that those on the wrong side of certain issues should be subjected to public shaming, harassment, and humiliation.

This debate is trivial, however, as the larger issue has already been decided: Americans have spent the last few years, both consciously and subconsciously, fixing moral outrage at the very center of society.

Incivility is merely an outgrowth of outrage culture, and today, outrage culture dominates everything.

As human beings go about defining and expressing our values, our values have a funny way of, in turn, defining us. C. S. Lewis put it this way: “we are what we believe we are.” If observing how a culture behaves enables us to discern and interpret its values, it is inescapable that, in recent years, moral outrage has stealthily but authoritatively emerged as America’s newest and most central core value.

As this phenomenon has become more and more apparent, commentators have taken their fair share of stabs at defining it. They labeled 2017the year that launched our addiction to outrage,” and asked,When did outrage become the national pastime?” Psychologists have increasingly warned ofthe dangerous pleasures of outrage,” and asked,Is our political outrage addictive?” While these are all significant and meaningful questions, they ignore a key detail: Outrage hasn’t just become an American hobby or addiction — it has become a value, as the dictionary defines the word: a principle, a standard of behavior, a judgment of what is important in life.

The point here isn’t a political one; this is an essay about American culture. If outrage, as a value, is now entrenched at the center of the American heart — and there’s a good case to be made that it is — it’s because we have put it there.

Given the pride of place we have given moral outrage, it only makes sense to explore the concept with more depth.

On its face, moral outrage appears to reflectan underlying concern with justice,” and it often does. Sending a harshly worded tweet, calling out perceived racism — these are behaviors suggestive of a strong sense of morality and an unwillingness to put up with injustice.

Yet psychologists have observed that threats to one’s moral self-image, unpleasant feelings of guilt, and a desire to restore a positive view of oneself also play roles in motivating outrage. Additionally, outrage is a social emotion; it compels individuals to express their outrage publicly in search of validation and solidarity. Which means that while outrage remains a response to perceived injustice, it can also be a self-serving emotional defense mechanism deployed to alleviate guilt, “buffer threats to one’s moral identity” and portray oneself as avery good personin the eyes of one’s peers.

Art Markman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas-Austin, explained it this way:

Outrage is an emotion that has three components. First, it has negative affect. That is, it is a bad feeling. Second, it has high arousal. That is, it is a strong and powerful emotion. Third, it occurs when people experience a violation of a moral boundary.

Posting politically charged content to Facebook, chastising family members who harbor differing political opinions, participating in large-scale protests— on some occasions, these expressions of moral outrage do far more to signal tribal solidarity than to actually accomplish meaningful change. And although participants can be well-intentioned and deeply motivated, the channeling of their commitment toward these ends is having an adverse effect on our national psyche.

Because of the social, reactionary, and defensive qualities of outrage as an emotion, our fealty to it as a value drives tribalism and many of the other “isms” of our time. When faced with a person or idea one perceives as threatening or different, a way to recover a sense of safety, a way to alleviate the discomfort, is by expressing moral outrage alongside those in agreement. Outrage is addictive, and functions to propel individuals toward each other in search of solidarity and validation. Thus, any group of individuals who share a common outrage target are highly susceptible to constructing echo chambers and value system — what we have called “bubbles” — dedicated to protecting the very things that the objects of outrage would seek to defile.

Today, bubbles have taken over mass media in the form of Twitter, Facebook, and cable news; our latent desires to constantly feel aligned with those moral voices with whom we agree dictates how we consume information. Anyone who looks will find an outlet for outrage, the ever-present incentive to indulge in it; they’ll find that the real product of cable news isn’t coverage of the day’s issues that aims to accurately capture what really took place, but a narrative that exports outrage as a means of harnessing political action and, most importantly, high ratings.

Chamath Palihapitiya, one of Facebook’s earliest hires, now considers social media websitesshort-term dopamine-driven feedback loops that…are destroying how society works.” The dominant attraction of posting politically or culturally charged content to social media isn’t the opportunity to engage in a healthy and meaningful conversation with others; it’s the chance that someone will engage with it and validate or challenge the poster’s outrage. That’s what drives clicks and likes and stimulates our brains’ pleasure centers. More and more, the real point of social media debates isn’t to hash out the issues, but to provide a platform for the psychologically rewarding expression of outrage, to “trigger” one’s opponents, to “troll” one’s rivals in order to embarrass them before a watching public, and to signal one’s intensity and commitment to the cause. Our technologies are facilitating these things.

This is a serious problem, since those who embrace and revel in outrage culture eventually develop a dependence toward its emotional benefits.

A few months ago, a white high-school-age girl in Salt Lake City wore a Chinese-themed dress to her prom, and subsequently incurred the wrath of thousands of Twitter users who chided her for the sin of “cultural appropriation.”

Did she violate anyone’s rights? Did she denigrate the culture she was “appropriating”? This is how outrage culture disarms one’s critical faculties — there is only room for anger; there is no room for careful or nuanced reflection on our cultural practices. At no point in the rush to condemn or defend the allegedly harmful appropriation did any of the loud voices stop to differentiate between culture-positive appropriations and culture-negative ones. In other words, was this action inherently injurious to the culture being “appropriated”? And, if so, what does criticizing the young woman on Twitter actually do about it?

Outrage culture left no room for these questions — it only left room to designate her worthy of public humiliation and the unbridled scorn of thousands of strangers.

This is, of course, absurd. Even if you happen to feel ill at ease over instances in which a member of a dominant economic or racial class avails herself of the customs and traditions of less-privileged cultures, we can agree that the moral outrage hurled at Keziah Daum on social media was wildly out of proportion to what her “crime” merited.

The reason for this disproportionate response? Because this type of moral outrage is reactionary, defensive, and socially instrumental; it is not generated in order to right any meaningful wrong, but either to solidify the status of the disapprovers within their in-groups, or to satisfy their sense of moral injury.

Twitter user Jeremy Lam identified a moment to express his moral outrage, have it validated by others, and enjoy the dopamine spike that accompanied the entire spectacle, all while contributing to the upkeep of outrage culture. He famously tweeted at Daum,My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress,” and with that, the cultural outrage ritual was complete. His tweet went viral, as was likely his wish (if not his expectation), and thousands of others joined him in expressing their outrage and signaling their supposedly high and nuanced moral standards to one another. Obviously, 177,000 Twitter users can’t be wrong. The outrage has the backing of the social-media-dwelling masses.

That this example of outrage culture centers on two basically anonymous, random individuals is precisely why it’s instructive. Keziah Daum and Jeremy Lam are not celebrities or public figures. They don’t have audiences to entertain or votes to chase. The only incentive for random individuals to chime in and express their outrage, in this and in countless other cases, is to secure the benefits of the outrage itself.

The Daum-Lam exchange and countless others like it also reveal how outrage culture has warped the ways Americans speak to and think of one another: increasingly, we treat each other less as individual human beings and more as symbolic representations of political concepts, useful only as cultural objects worthy of praise or fury. For some, the inherent dignity, humanity, and individualism of their fellow citizens have been reduced to a trivial afterthought at best.

Not a word here is an attempt to downplay the importance of morality or the vitality of a deeply-felt emotion such as outrage. Moral outrage does have a crucial role to play in a healthy society, as some things are genuinely morally outrageous and demand that we approach them with a sense of ethical revulsion.

Without the value of moral outrage — for which Martin Luther King, Jr. had tremendous appreciation and respect — the civil rights movement likely would have failed, or at least languished. Without a strong and clear moral vision, the courage to express it, and the willingness to die for it, slavery may have persisted in America for far longer than it did. Without a healthy sense of what’s morally agreeable and what’s morally reprehensible, progress of any kind is likely impossible.

So the point here isn’t that we ought to embrace moral relativism, indifference, or lethargy, but to challenge the position that moral outrage should take its place as a core value in American society.

By elevating outrage to such a high position, we have all but guaranteed that, eventually, a purely performative — and permanent — reactionary outrage will pervade society. That is what Twitter has become. It’s what will be on tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day, on cable news networks during prime time hours.

The saying that we’re seeing a lot of recently, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” equates being informed with an obligation to be outraged, turning an emotion into a moral imperative. The dangers that face a culture that lives by this rule cannot be understated; equating being engaged with an obligation to be outraged is an easy way to guarantee a permanent culture war and a miserable future, as — perhaps unsurprisingly — the emotional costs of living in a furious society are high. After all, anger has been shown to negatively impact health, and it would be unsurprising if outrage culture turns out to be similarly impacting America’s rising suicide rates, its opioid crisis, and its epidemic of depression.

To combat outrage culture, columnist David Von Drehle encourages readers to “switch away from the televised outrage orgies that masquerade as news. Resist the urge to get worked up about stupid stuff that knuckleheads say. Spend more time among reasonable people doing healthy things.” Writer Trent Eady argues for more humility, for treating people as individuals and not as political symbols or representatives of their perceived identity groups, for being diplomatic and strategic in pursuit of the change one wishes to make. Recently at the Munk Debates in Toronto, Stephen Fry evoked the spirit of Bertrand Russell, and urged Western civilization “not to be too earnest, too pompous, too serious [or]…too certain” and to “let doubt prevail.”

Any combination of these suggestions would do well to begin the process of dethroning the value of moral outrage. But, like with any epidemic, the first step must be widespread awareness. The more Americans grasp that their moral sensibilities are being manipulated by a set of mutually-intensifying and degrading processes, the more our culture will begin to shake itself from our numbness and our permanent state of anger.

Our national discussion is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and right now, it’s poisoned with fury. We are telling each other a needlessly outrageous story in an effort to maintain a dysfunctional and harmful core value. If we are to live in harmony with one another and pursue a peaceful future, that has to change. After all, we are what we believe we are. (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with these words found in James 1:19 (NLT)–Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be…

Quick to listen . . .

Slow to speak . . .

And slow to get angry . . . .

YouTube Video: “Speak Life” by TobyMac:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here