The Dangers of Outrage

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It’s hard not to be outraged by news on the Internet. Sites dependent on advertising revenue use just a few tricks to drive user engagement (measured by time on site, likes and shares on social media, and clicks to related content). Headlines framed as questions (Is Google the New Evil Empire?), links that tell readers how they will feel (You will be shocked…), and, of course, content designed to provoke outrage are all angling for your attention. So much of what passes for news on the Internet seems to be aimed at our reptilian brains—provoking fear, anger, or lust.

The further you get from established, mainstream news, the more likely you are to see content framed in such a way as to provoke outrage. If you are a Facebook junkie like me, then you already know which of your friends can be counted on to share the most outrageous articles. Outrage is a response; sometimes it’s easy to forget that it’s not the only response.

Outrage is not a benign response. It may raise your blood pressure or make you hot under the collar. It may elevate your stress level, but there are more pernicious effects. To feel moral outrage, especially, requires a belief in one’s own decency, a belief that starts with, “I would never do…” or “How can anyone…” Implicit is the belief that I and my tribe are morally superior. Those people who have done despicable things are from a different tribe, perhaps different enough that they don’t deserve humane treatment.

This is where outrage becomes really ugly. Not content with denouncing bad behavior, I may even condone violence done to avenge it. This may take the form of hateful speech or comments or mere silence when I see “those people” getting what they deserve. Will I speak up for them if their own rights are trammelled? Outrage leaves little room for mercy.

The greatest danger of outrage, however, is that it accomplishes nothing. Sure, I might share a post about some miscarriage of justice, and it’s gratifying to find that my friends agree with me, but it takes real work and sacrifice to correct and prevent injustice. Outrage feels like enough, but it isn’t.

 

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