Outrage Culture

I Haz Opinions

I’m feeling a lot of feels this week, and rather than get all sappy and wistful, I think I’ll just talk about what I originally had on my mind before all this sad news came along.

There are a lot of things I like about our culture right now, especially the push for empowerment and understanding when it comes to race, gender, sexual orientation, cultural heritage, mental illness, disabilities, and body image, etc. Technology has connected us, expanded our experiences, given us all platforms to tell our stories and speak our minds; it’s a great direction if we want a strong and more harmonious society where everyone has the opportunity to be their best. There’s only one dark side to that movement: outrage culture.

Outrage culture is the snowballing of defensive impulses, a kind of mob mentality, where they grow into a destructive force. We all feel the urge to shout someone down when we don’t like what they’re saying (or we don’t like the fact that they’re the one saying it, or we don’t understand it), but it becomes a wicked, torch and pitchfork problem when we create a culture where it’s OK to do so. People get a powerful thrill from piling on when someone shows a vulnerability, and soon start seeking out opportunities to attack. (For a great example, check out this New York Times article: “How One Stupid Tweet Blew up Justine Sacco’s Life.”)

I’m not saying it’s wrong to feel whatever you naturally feel, nor am I talking about expressing outrage over a true atrocity, like murder or rape or a grave injustice—that’s what outrage is for. What I’m talking about is applying a filter to decide when something you feel an impulse to express is a reasonable response to what you’re upset by, and whether there would be unintended consequences if you do. People overuse hyperbole, making small things the equivalent of truly heinous things: like being outraged over jokes, or people not adopting the “right” words or the “right” level of shame. Outrage culture assigns responsibility to even the slightest (perceived) offense for the greater (and inarguable) evils that do real harm, and won’t accept anything but complete immolation as apology.

Group relationships aren’t so different from individual relationships. We all have parts of ourselves that we feel need to be protected, and the impulse to push back harder than we’re pushed when our sensitive zone is breached. In a strong and harmonious relationship between individuals, however, no one puts words in the other person’s mouth or blows what they said out of proportion; no one bullies the other. Feelings are expressed honestly, but the tone and wording of their delivery are measured to not be attacking. This is how trust and respect are built.

Here’s the thing: Some people are genuinely assholes. Setting aside all the circumstances outlined above where things are blown up or misinterpreted, now and then you’ll encounter someone who actually is racist, or sexist, or just a troll who wants to upset you. When they spew hate, you’ll feel threatened and angry. Short of causing you physical harm, they have a right to be an asshole, and you have a right to do with that what you will: turn away and live your life the way you want to, forcing their hate to dissipate into the air with your calm, or you can let them control your emotions and make your life about wrestling with pigs.

Very few things are worth fighting over, let’s keep it civil.

Managing Editor for Synthesis Weekly. Amy likes to make clothes, plant flowers, and chase butterflies.