In December, Slate magazine put together a tour of the “Year of Outrage,” highlighting an event that set off an uproar on social media for each day of 2014. The items range from the year’s biggest news stories (ISIS, Ebola, policing) to offhand remarks by celebrities to virtually everything that President Obama said or did. Whatever your political persuasion, you can probably find something in the calendar that makes you roll your eyes and something that upsets you.
Whether social media gins up outrage (as Slate’s feature seems to suggest) or simply makes it more visible, the Internet does seem to encourage people to stake out a stance on outrage and stick to it. Just as there are separate blog ecosystems on the Left and the Right, there are distinct outrage and counter-outrage spheres: some bloggers and publications specialize in seeking it out and publicizing it, others in expressing skepticism or debunking it.
Each new week offers a wide variety of reasons to take up arms. Some, like racism in criminal justice or climate change, are evergreen; one could justifiably stay angry about these issues every day of the year, not just when an IPCC report or jury decision is released. Most humans, though, would find it difficult to maintain that state of mind and stay sane. Outrage is not just a rhetorical device; it is also a finite resource. Moreover, anybody who actually condemned everything they were called upon to condemn would quickly be tuned out (not to mention un-followed and un-friended).
In practice, therefore, most people adopt the rhetoric of outrage or counter-outrage as it suits their ideological needs. Even if you find all 365 of Slate’s items genuinely anger-inducing, you’ll have to decide which ones are most worthy of your attention, which means thinking about when outrage is useful.
Outrage tactics such as the ‘hate retweet’ have value, even if they risk elevating the worst voices.
Outrage is, broadly, one of three ways to react to current events. Another option is furrowed-brow contemplation, which holds that we need to debate X like rational adults rather than try to resolve the argument by shouting down the other side. Think of a centrist commentator, such as the late David Broder, pleading for civility and reasoned dialogue. This position seems to be popular among those who don’t identify with either side of the American political spectrum, perhaps because they associate outrage with partisan outrage, in which the Blue Team creates an uproar to score points against the Red Team or vice versa.
The second alternative to outrage is detachment: the sense that a given news item is a distraction, a laughing matter, or both. Think of an Internet troll, who enjoys getting a rise out of others, or a cynical pundit such as the ones in Jay Rosen’s “Cult of the Savvy.” The detached response is usually some variant of “I can’t believe you’re getting so worked up about this.” Sometimes this is because the outrage afflicts only one side of the ideological spectrum: see, for example, the conservative responses to the items in Slate having to do with subtler forms of sexism or racism. When the outrage concerns some transgression by the Obama administration, on the other hand, liberals naturally take the detached position.
While detachment is the appropriate reaction to a true tempest in a teapot, quite often it is opportunistic—aiming to marginalize activism subtly on a given issue. Consider the frequent objection that people who weren’t upset about an issue in the past have forfeited their right to make a fuss now. This tactic is a favorite among critics of the Ferguson protesters, such as Rudy Giuliani, who claim that, since “black-on-black crime” is more common than police killings of civilians, it should have been the target of the protests instead. This alleged inconsistency is supposed to demonstrate that activists are not truly motivated by the belief that black lives matter, but by some less noble motive such as lawlessness or hatred of police.
Giuliani’s claim is a non sequitur—for one thing, we can’t protest criminals and expect them to care. But the detached response has a subtext: it aims to make activism impossible. If it is illegitimate to oppose an offense without having also opposed every past instance, it’s also impossible to organize against injustice. Organizing a movement, by definition, involves mobilizing people who previously were not publicly concerned. In addition, activism involves focusing on some issues at the expense of others, and that means paying more attention to some injustices than to others. The detached response, therefore, is only coherent if you don’t believe that activism on the issue at hand is justified in the first place.
The contemplative response to events of the day is less openly dismissive than the detached response, since it typically concedes that the issue in question is real and worth discussing. Precisely because the topic is so important, the argument goes, we shouldn’t focus on the most egregiously offensive or incorrect statements, since that poisons public discourse and distracts us from engaging with the strongest arguments for a given political position. We all know that the offender (Giuliani, for example) is a provocateur, so let’s ignore him or her and debate the issues like mature adults.
While considering the best versions of arguments from across the spectrum is certainly worthwhile, it sometimes needs to give way to activism, outrage’s companion. Pointing out that someone—particularly an elected official—holds ridiculous beliefs can be just as important as debating policy. Returning to the example of Ferguson and policing, it is a fine impulse to ignore the provocations of Bill O’Reilly or Representative Peter King, but the fact that their views keep finding an audience indicates something important about the state of race relations. That, in turn, shapes what policy options are viable in the current political context. When Nick Kristof, for example, claims that the debate over police brutality would have gone differently if activists had chosen a better example than Michael Brown, he is not reckoning with the claims that make the O’Reillys and Kings of the world so popular. That is why outrage tactics such as the “hate retweet” sometimes have value, even if they risk elevating the worst voices.
Drawing attention to objectionable views is worthwhile, but not if the person in question has no real constituency or influence. Members of New Hampshire’s House of Representatives are frequent targets of outrage, since the chamber’s large size (400 seats) and non-professional nature guarantee that a state representative will make the news every so often for off-the-wall comments, whether by arguing that women deserve lower pay or speculating about Sarah Palin’s death. Liberal or conservative news outlets typically report these comments as “Republican/Democratic lawmaker says X” without noting that the lawmaker in question represents fewer people than a member of a typical suburban board of education.
When someone points out that it is hardly worth taking up arms in cases such as these, a common rebuttal is that while the offender may not be significant in his or her own right, he or she is an especially good example of everything that makes the other side (liberals, Republicans, feminists, the Christian right, etc.) abhorrent. If this argument can be backed up, however, it is by means of other evidence, such as party platforms or more prominent politicians expressing the same beliefs. And if better evidence exists, whatever the most recent offender said is superfluous except as a way to drum up news coverage.
While efforts to make political debate more civil are often well intentioned and reasonable, outrage is often essential as a spur to action. For that reason, though, we should think carefully about how we wield it. When people hide behind outrage to avoid making coherent arguments, they risk adding to the general sense that outrage is just another irritating feature of the political landscape. Irritating though it may be, sometimes it is the only appropriate reaction.