Well, here is my inaugural post on the newly-spring-cleaned Home Again Jog, the blog that I have zero intention of monetizing. EVER. Which allows me the luxury of posting whatever I want. I hadn't intended to begin the post with a deeply philosophical essay on the phenomenon of internet outrage, I was going to say something about moving back to Vermont, beginning a new-yet-old phase of my life, blah, blah, blah, throw in some pretty pictures and voila! Post. But no, I'm going to kick things off with a bang. Go big or don't blog... I'm pretty sure that's not how that saying goes. Any-hoo, without further adieu, I give you OUTRAGE!!! (are you excited? I'm excited.)
I AM OUTRAGED!!! About what? Well, it depends on what happens to be moving through my newsfeed on Facebook or trending in the news. With every passing year I seem to spend more of my time being outraged. Every day I am faced with at least one story detailing something that is genuinely deserving of my fury. One of the things that the internet, broadly, and social media, specifically, offers us is a never ending menu of horrible things about which we should be outraged.
The triggers are varied: they can take the form of a news story describing the horrible abuse of an animal, a video containing images of a brutal act, a post of a friend who has a very different viewpoint from my own, or an editorial discussing an aspect of the terrible state of the world. While the forms and subjects are different, the effect they have on me is the same: I feel an anger welling up deep inside me, all of my thoughts turn to this subject, and I start searching the internet for more information. Frequently, I find an outlet to vent a little of my anger: I post a comment on a news story; I post something to my Facebook wall, I leave a mini-rant on someone’s status. When I do this, I hope to discharge a little of the anger, but it usually has the opposite effect. Now I have allowed these awful things to hold court in my head for so long that they have taken hold of my thought-space. I will spend hours or sometimes days ruminating about the wickedness, callousness, or stupidity of the world. Sometimes the thoughts keep me awake at night, invading my sleep with things about which I can do nothing, and that is part of the problem; outrage without real-world action is just useless emotion.
All too often, there is a specific person who is the object of the outrage. The internet affords us this truly ugly ability to disregard a person’s humanity. We stop thinking about the objects of our outrage as people: complicated and complex, someone’s child, someone’s parent, a person, whole and complete, just like we are. Instead they become one-dimensional abstractions of themselves. They become a symbol representing the crime they committed and the embodiment of whatever evil they’re charged with, they become a vessel into which we pour our fury at the injustice of the world. And pour we do, with loud and brutal imprecatory pronouncements. We call God’s wrath down on their heads! We wish them lives of misery! We remind them and ourselves that “karma” will get them! “I hope you die a horrible death!” we “yell,” euphemistically, as we type furiously with our caps-lock on. One way or another they will pay for what they have done! The Universe demands it!
Occasionally it becomes clear that our outrage toward the person at the center of the story is straightforward schadenfreude, we are absolutely delighted that this person is going through this because we feel better by comparison. A mother leaves her child in the car while she shops, the police are summoned and the distress of the parent and child are caught on camera and plastered across our news feed for the world to revel in. “What a horrible parent! I would NEVER leave my child in a car while I shopped, she doesn’t even deserve to have kids!” We exclaim with barely concealed glee, as though the only conceivable reason a mother might leave her child in the car is hateful neglect, as opposed to another plausible explanation, perhaps a momentary lapse in judgment? And the only measure by which we determine the fitness of a mother is by whether or not she leaves her child in a car. We take a moment from the life of a family, assume we understand the entirety of the situation, and proceed to extrapolate that moment to reflect the entirety of their parenting, never once considering how we would fare if we were judged by our worst moments as parents. We make snap judgments based on a snapshot of a life and proceed to cause tremendous damage in our frequently feigned outrage.
Fortunately for the people who are our wrath-vessel du jour, we have the attention span of a goldfish, at least I do. I feel the current outrage so acutely that the former outrage slips into the back of my mind. Very occasionally former outrage vessels will resurface, when for one reason or another they become relevant again, and I feel a small twinge of my former fury, but it’s dull and far off. Then they quickly drift away again, taking the emotion and the injustice they symbolized with them. That is because abstract non-human symbolic wrath-vessels lack any substance that might provide them with staying power to motivate me to affect real change, in the real world, where the real problems are.
One reason that is frequently cited explaining the “rightness” of the multitude of outrage-inciting stories is the notion that the outrage raises awareness which leads to change. That seems both reasonable and obvious on the surface. However, a closer look reveals that logic to be false. One thing that has been constant over the course of the millennia of recorded history is change. Prior to the advent of social media, things changed. In this country: women won the right to vote, we ended slavery, enacted laws protecting workers, made progress on civil rights, all without the help of the internet and social media. Even the premise that it’s the outrage that is the sustainer of change is false, outrage may be an effective catalyst, but the people who have affected change in the real world were the ones who moved beyond their outrage to develop a singular purpose, they were focused, hardworking, and dedicated to their cause. In fact, they were able to put their outrage behind them in order to get the work done. Wild emotion is not conducive to long-term, focused labor.
The sad truth is that occasionally we do manage to cause “change” with our virtual outrage. The only problem is that the change generally accomplishes nothing. In fact, it's worse than nothing because we feel like we did something useful, when what we did exists only in a virtual netherworld only tangentially related to our own. A useless, virtual, nether-change of nothingness, often causing horrible-yet-useless effects in the real world. The most recent outrage as of this writing, was the killing of a Lion named Cecil by Walter Palmer, a dentist based in Missouri. The killing of Cecil was an outrage; there is something of a consensus on that point. Assuming we have accurate information, we know that the methods Walter Palmer used to kill Cecil were unequivocally unethical. The killing of Cecil brought to light the very real and ongoing problems of big game hunting for profit, the hunting of endangered species, and poaching. However, here are some things that are true of these issues: first, these things have been going on for a very long time. Second, there are organizations working in conjunction with governments, who are devoted to ending these practices and they have both existed and have been at work for a very long time. Third, Walter Palmer was not the first person to kill a lion in an unethical way, nor will he be the last. What did the outrage accomplish? We seem to have caused Dr. Palmer to close his practice. Of all of the work that these groups are doing to end these long-term problems, I feel absolutely confident that closing a dental practice in Missouri did not help in the slightest. For starters, it’s the wrong continent. Maybe there is a parallel universe without a poaching problem but with a huge, illegal lion-based dentistry issue and they're waiting for a practice-closure that will never come.
In his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” Author Neil Postman says "This idea - that there is a content called "the news of the day" – was entirely created by the telegraph (and since amplified by newer media), which made it possible to move decontextualized information over vast spaces at incredible speed. The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is quite, precisely, a media event. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation." (When Neil Postman made these observations in 1985 he had no idea to what extent social media would indeed amplify them.) Herein lies the crux of the issue, outrage on the internet is the ultimate form of fragmented, decontextualized information. Usually the “story” we are reacting to is incomplete, it’s but a fragment of the whole of the truth, which is undoubtedly layered and nuanced, thus rendering it impossible to accurately reduce to a sound bite. It’s then presented by the media outlet reporting it in such a way as to induce maximum outrage. Furthermore, there is absolutely nothing that the vast majority of people receiving the information can do to make a difference. No, the outrage of the masses is merely useless emotion as decontextualized as the information in which it has its origins. It’s the catharsis of the world, our collective raging and noise, existing almost exclusively in the vacuum of the internet except when it spills out just long enough to destroy the life, family, or livelihood of the particular person who may be at its center.
Outrage, nurtured, becomes ugly. It manifests as bitterness, crudeness, hopelessness, and a complete abandonment of civility. We are becoming a society who's defining characteristic is its propensity to be incensed at a moment's notice. The effects of our outrage spill over into the real world. How could they not? Despite the virtual context, the emotions that we are expressing are real and deeply felt. They simply cannot remain in the virtual because we carry our outrage baggage away from the screens and into the physical world, where it infects our interactions with the people around us. We have to stop. We have to remember that there is more to every story than can be summed up in a Facebook post, or worse, a 140 character tweet. We have to remember that all of the "stories" we're hearing on social media are decontextualized because the medium of social media can only offer fragments of information. We have to look back at the course of our lives and count the second-chances we've been granted, and, with the grace we have received, extend second-chances to the wrath-vessels, however abhorrent they may appear, because we endeavor to remember that the virtual is not real, and things are never what they seem. Outrage is an ineffective an ultimately impotent emotion that needs to be countered with compassion and viewed with wisdom until it morphs into an interaction with the world that flows from a place of grace. The world and the people in it need our grace so much more than our rage. May I ever be gracious.
Grace to you,