The Addictive Allure of Outrage

Admit it: you love getting mad.

It’s okay. We all do to some degree. The adrenaline surge from a perceived threat is a primitive, powerful high. Responding to that threat with primal outrage is a marvelous release of tension. We’re designed to get excited by conflict, even if it frightens us sometimes.

When someone is wrong on the Internet, we feel that surge. And when we hit the reply button and vent our outrage, we feel satisfied. We’ve identified a threat and fought against it. We’ve done something good and righteous.

And when someone we like gets outraged, we join in. Combat is a team sport, after all, and we all want to reap the spoils of victory. But when it’s one of our allies who’s attacked, we take up arms and repel the invaders. We must protect our tribe at all costs.

An eye for an eye until we’re all blind.

I’m a fan of stand-up comedy. It’s one of the purest forms of creative expression that exists. As someone fascinated by stand-up, I enjoy reading interviews and articles where comedians talk about their craft. One central topic that keeps coming up is how much the game has changed for them in the social media era. Before Twitter and smartphones existed, comedians would go to the clubs and deliver their fresh material to a small crowd — essentially a beta test for new jokes. Some jokes would work, others would not. The jokes that got laughs stayed in the act, the rest were cut and never heard again. There was an implicit understanding between the comedian and the club audiences that this was a proving ground, and that mistakes would happen from time to time. To err is human, and when a real, live human is standing in front of you performing a labor of love, it’s only natural to cut them a bit of slack.

That understanding is rapidly eroding. There’s no such thing as a joke that doesn’t get heard again, especially when big name comics do a set at a club. More importantly, there’s no cooling-off period for the audience. Ten years ago, if a stand-up comic told an off-color joke, the worst that could happen was booing and heckling from the small crowd. Everyone would go home and relax, and over a short time the bad joke would be forgotten. Today, that same audience can fire off a barrage of condemning tweets before the punchline lands, then immediately feel the rush of likes and faves from thousands of people who aren’t in the room, who aren’t reacting to a real, live flesh-and-blood performer. Imagine the pressure on a comedian in this situation. What was once a relatively safe space to test their material has become a minefield. A misstep might be fine, but it might also trigger an explosion.

Try to recall the last time you said something stupid and/or offensive at a party, on a date, or with family. Remember that sinking feeling of shame. Now imagine someone filmed you saying it, and broadcast your embarrassment to the entire planet. Imagine a mob of social media commenters rushing to condemn you. Imagine New York Times columnists tearing you to pieces.

Now, back in the real world, realize this important truth: Everyone who was there to witness your gaffe in person has, in all likelihood, completely forgotten about it. You still remember it because it personally embarrassed you, but unless you said something horribly, egregiously bad, everyone else has long since moved past that moment. People who are shamed online don’t have that luxury, because Internet outrage is immortal.

Which brings us to the other key difference between now and then: outrage in 2015 is immortal because data is immortal. Once something gets online and into enough hands, it will never go away. You can delete a tweet or a status update or a photo, or even kill your entire account, but if you’ve pissed someone off they’ve almost certainly kept a record of it.

Stand-up is merely an example of this disturbing trend. Anyone who speaks online to a big enough audience is a potential target of outrage. If you have a large enough platform, it’s only a matter of time before someone is put out by something you say or do. And when they are, their outrage won’t be limited to a small room full of people on one night. It will be widespread, and eternal.

This immortality of shame is not necessarily a bad thing. When a person with tremendous power says or does something shitty, we’re fortunate said shittiness sticks around and reminds us all of who they really are. Speaking truth to power is the best possible use of social media, and holding the powerful accountable should be the goal of any free society.

But what about the somewhat powerful? At what level of power and influence does it become okay to scrutinize and dissect every tiny misstep? Is a comedian powerful enough to warrant such intense and thorough criticism? How about an author?

Last month, best-selling author John Green was bullied into responding to accusations he’s a creepy pedophile (spoiler alert: he’s absolutely not). Understandably, the experience of dealing with absurd, baseless criticism soured him on social media as a whole. He’s not alone. I’ve seen plenty of minor celebrities (and when I say “minor,” I truly mean “one in a hundred thousand people wouldn’t know who the hell this person is”) retreat in the face of outrage.

Defending yourself against an outraged horde is not fun, especially if you’re one of us introverted, artsy, creative types. It’s exhausting. And each time you have to do it, you feel less and less inclined to ever speak up again. Eventually you take your voice out of the conversation entirely, because it’s no longer worth the risk. Either that, or you bland-ify your online persona to the point that you’re no longer interesting, let alone offensive.

And that’s the end game of the outrage tornado: everyone becomes too afraid to say anything. We stop saying anything at all, good or bad, important or not, because there’s zero margin for error. And when everyone’s scared into silence, the void is filled by the small group of pig-headed bottom-feeders who remain immune to outrage. The Donald Trumps, Ann Coulters, and Jeremy Clarksons of the world will be the only ones left talking. And no one will speak up against them, or against any of the other pieces of human garbage who are truly worthy of outrage.

Just for fun, here’s a simple experiment you can try. Next time something or someone pisses you off online (I’m sure you won’t have to wait long for the next occurrence), set a twenty minute timer on your phone or your watch. Close your social media feeds. Do something else (I suggest reading a book). If you’re still mad — honestly, sincerely mad — when your timer goes off, log on and express your feelings. Rage away. I’ll bet you a glass of your favorite beverage you won’t even remember what you were upset about.

Outrage has power, and meaning. It should be wielded appropriately. Save it for when it’s really needed.


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