When I look around online — from Facebook to what the Spawn calls “the social justice kids” — I sometimes think I’ve fallen into the world of Howard Beale. All around, I see windows flung open, and I hear people announcing that they’re mad as hell about something and not going to take it any more. I think I see this a bit more on the Left side of my readings, but that may be because I’m an academic and a writer, both fields with a disproportionate lefty population. YMMV.
Even so, I find myself surrounded by angry people who want me to act on their anger. Boycott this merchant. Sign that petition. Shame whoever is standing in the way of our desired sunny, uplit highlands. After all, all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing, and there is always some sort of evil in the world.
And that’s the thing. There is always some sort of evil in the world. We can’t fix it all. And even when we do the best we can, there will always be something else. That doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything, but being constantly eye-bulgingly angry at the world’s imperfections means that we’ll reduce the quality of our own lives without necessarily improving the overall state of things.
So what’s the point of all the screaming, yelling, boycotts and petitions I see each day? Well, Ryan Holiday has some ideas. He calls it “Outrage Porn”, and suggests that it is both a means of feeling righteous and a way of distracting ourselves from larger, intractable problems. But I also suspect it may be more than that.
Toward the end of Holiday’s essay, he says:
“Outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but over time devour us from the inside out. And it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure.”
This is just it. Outrage has slowly eaten online media from the inside out. What was once a righteous and necessary force—a check on softball reporting inside old media—is now a corrupt and lazy vice. The outrage you see isn’t real, it isn’t sincere. In fact, it is the opposite. It’s shallow, it’s superficial and it’s selfish.
Now as it happens, I have some professional knowledge of vice (in addition to the fieldwork most of us engage in from time to time.) It’s worth noting that the phenomenon Holiday describes — the desire to smash, to seethe with what one thinks is righteous wrath, but without the acknowledgement of pleasure, is traditionally associated with the sin of envy. And I wonder if so much of the outrage that folks gin up each day might not simply be disguised versions of some of our old pals, the Seven Deadlies. The constant outrage allows people the opportunity for moral preening (Pride), to wish ill on others (Envy), and to vent rage (Wrath.)
It’s sometimes useful, I think, to bear in mind that we may be sinning the most when we feel most righteous. And if that is so, perhaps it is best to regard the temptations to outrage with significant suspicion.
A tip of the Mondo Mortarboard to Kathy Phillips Nanney, via Facebook.