Reflections on a Year of Outrage

Our culture is losing its ability to focus on the problems that really matter.

Reuters / Carlo Allegri

As New Year’s Day approaches, I’ve been looking back and pondering the almost constant expressions of outrage that characterized another year. “The same cycle occurs regardless of the gravity of the offense, which can make each outrage feel forgettable, replaceable,” the former Slate editor Julia Turner declared. “The bottomlessness of our rage has a numbing effect … It’s fascinating to look at how our collective responses skipped from the serious to the picayune without much modulation in pitch.”

In America’s digital culture, outrage is packaged to almost every niche in the citizenry. People feel a “duty” to be outraged by the offenses being trotted out, Choire Sicha argued in the same Slate story. “Maybe you were guided by fury. Maybe even as you cried out your emotion was moving on,” he observed. “Maybe you were exhausted and ironic. Maybe you were playing to the cheap seats, broadcasting a simulacrum of a human response because you, without realizing it, have become a strange magazine of one, a media brand of yourself.”

And then things turned:

You are speaking, first, into the echo chamber of your friends. But not everyone is in your silo. And so then some stranger is mad at you; then some friend is noticeably silent. You are blocked or you are yelled at. Spiraling conversations come from realms unexpected and unwanted. You are embarrassed, or you are angrier, defensive or passive-aggressive, or laughing at them all. It is a rush of emotion that stretches long but is only an instant. Then, with a slithery zip, the moment is sealed shut. That cycle is replicating itself now all around you …

All those words describe 2018.

Yet they were all written in 2014, when Slate published a year-end package that it called “The Year of Outrage.” It included an interactive calendar noting what Americans had been outraged about every day of that year.

Remember when NBC was under fire for broadcasting a comedian’s light mockery of Pearl Harbor survivors? And when a costume that the recording artist Macklemore performed in struck some as anti-Semitic? And when Jennifer Lawrence made a rape joke? And Ira Glass’s dig at Shakespeare? And a Washington Post contributor’s remark on marriage and gender violence? And Raven-Symoné’s comment about her racial identity?

Yeah, me neither.

As I perused the Slate calendar, I started to suspect that most of the items of outrage are forgotten even by many of the people who expressed outrage at the time. Yet four years on, outrage is still regularly pegged to matters as trivial as an aquarium’s tweet about an overweight otter, to cite a recent example.

“All of this raises a question: If nothing comes from the outrage, what was the point?” Jamelle Bouie asked in 2014. “It feels good to express disgust, of course, and when that comes with social affirmation—favorites, retweets, followers, blog posts—there’s an incentive to show more anger. But I think there’s more to it than that. In a world where prejudice and privilege still rule the day, it’s cathartic for a lot of lefties—even straight white dudes—to show outrage, even if it leads to nothing in particular.”

He went on to characterize the costs and benefits of that mode:

By raging against something … you can voice your anger at the status quo, which, in the past year especially, seems to have frozen in place. And with a simple retweet, you can signify just what camp you’re in. In a sense, for the social-media left, cultural outrage is a substitute for politics.

You may not be able to move the Democratic Party toward a more populist agenda or stop the Republican takeover of state governments across the country or protect abortion rights or even make media more inclusive. But you can punish social transgressions and in doing so, affirm the values that are missing from so much of the digital and analog worlds. The problem, unfortunately, is that this doesn’t give you a material win. It doesn’t ameliorate any actual injustice. And it might, in the end, harm efforts to make change. If outrage stands in for activism, if we’re focused on the moral temperature of Internet individuals, then we’re distracted from the collective action—and collective institution building—that makes real reform possible.

There are other costs, too. Some of the “guilty” are over-punished for some social transgressions; even many innocents live in fear of online mobs.

And when so much is treated as outrageous, a culture loses the ability to focus on the ills that matter or even to easily describe why they are truly outrageous. For example, I’ve argued for many years that more outrage is warranted in response to U.S. drone strikes that kill innocent civilians. Circa 2009, one could convey the horrors that affected certain villages in Yemen or Pakistan by talking about the awfulness of “feeling unsafe in one’s home,” or “the erasure of a marginalized community.”

Now language like that signifies very little. Its power has been sapped by all the people who say they’re unsafe when they mean they’re uncomfortable, and by those who talk as if verbal criticism can literally erase its targets.

On the populist right, too, there are commentators aplenty who treat outrage as though it is an inexhaustible resource—“What kind of man,” a pandering Laura Ingraham once asked, “orders a cheeseburger without ketchup, but Dijon mustard?”—depleting it of its power instead of reserving it for the definitionally anomalous moments when it is both warranted and useful. Their counterfeiting does real harm.

In that same Slate package, Amanda Hess offered a characteristically astute defense of some digital outrage, describing its value to some people:

Social media allows people who have been boxed out of journalistic, academic, and political spaces to speak out about their lived experiences (#ICantBreathe) and call on the elites to address their own unexamined entitlements … Disrupting the rigid structures of language and standards of argumentation enforced by the elites is part of the point. As New Inquiry editor Ayesha Siddiqi said of social media in an interview with the Guardian this month: “Work that’s meant to liberate all people cannot be presented in a language available to very few.” The structures of racism, sexism, and homophobia are too powerful and ubiquitous to topple in a single blow, so online activists grab hold of millions of little examples and start chipping away.

Done right, chipping away can and does improve the world.

But she also warned about pitfalls of this mode: “This new subindustry of identity-based outrage has created its own rigid conventions, and thinkers who don’t play by the rules will themselves be made the target,” she wrote. “A new media order that should be teeming with more vibrant viewpoints than ever is at risk of calcifying into a staid landscape, where original thought is muffled by the wet blanket of political correctness.”

So how to find the sweet spot? How is someone who wants to deploy outrage constructively, ethically, and effectively to proceed in the year ahead?

One answer is to study recent history and stay cognizant of its lessons. While “The Year of Outrage” was worth reading back when it was published, the package is even more valuable to today’s thoughtful reader. This is partly because the rise of Donald Trump (has any other president ever expressed outrage so promiscuously?), fueled partly by populist-right outrage and a backlash to political correctness, illustrates a consequence of outrage culture as it was described in 2014 that few anticipated.

But more than that, Slate’s daily chronicle of mostly forgotten outrages affords a chance to look back and reflect on a few specific instances when good was achieved—and lots more where nothing was gained at some cost.