Moral outrage is a fixture in campus life. Fueled by expanding social technology, outrage culture is ripping through the fabric of American democracy and ingraining illiberalism in the minds of our future leaders.
The process is relatively speedy. It happens when a "gay Hollywood liberal" goes to a football game with a former president. Or when a group of young Trump supporters harasses a Native American man, only for the “facts” of the story to later be retracted. Or when a University of Tennessee student posts a picture of himself and his friends in “blackface” with an admittedly sadistic caption.
Once the perpetrator’s been “called out,” virtual wolves around the globe go on the attack. These attacks are remarkably vicious, carried out by practitioners noticeably apathetic about the pain they, too, are imposing. It reveals a problem at the core of modern American democracy: We’ve lost sight of the fact that fighting hate with hate never really accomplishes much.
Social platforms — unlike news organizations or university disciplinary boards — do not require due process. Confined to the privacy of one’s own home, social media users have no procedural obligations and the perceived defendant no right to a fair investigation. Armed with the multiplied power of digital harm, outrage culture reduces one’s life down to another’s knee-jerk reaction.
As one college student describes in The Atlantic, social media has become a “bottomless well down which (young people) just cast all of our very real discord where it (won’t) hurt anyone.” The research and empirical impact of social media is ambiguous, but its effect doesn’t seem harmless thus far.
Common Sense Media finds that teens are the most widespread users of social platforms, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that since 2007 — the year Twitter gained widespread popularity — suicide rates doubled among teen girls and rose by over 30 percent for teen boys. This alone points to a bleak reality.
Human connection, New York Times columnist David Brooks recounts, is the only prosperous mode of change observed throughout history. Yet, digital outrage facilitates the opposite and popularizes a process that renders the human into the nonhuman. When this becomes the norm, it should not be lost on us that the birth of “evil begins when you begin to treat people as things,” an axiom first articulated by the English novelist Sir Terry Pratchett.
Today’s outrage takes a human life and redefines it as a thing, to a single belief or moment. However real or justified that discord may be, this dystopian valuation of life ignores an essential truism the Pulitzer-prize winning biographer Jon Meacham articulates best: that with humanity “imperfection is the rule, not the exception.”
But outrage falls short elsewhere, too.
Digital fury does little — if anything — to address the root causes of our social problems. Outrage culture instead implements a simple incentive structure — not entirely unlike Mao’s cultural revolution — by teaching those with objectionable views to hide amongst the shadows of society out of fear for retribution. The ensuing outrage, then, never actually solves the problem; it conceals it.
In her seminal work, “Asperger's Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna,” Edith Sheffer describes the life of Nazi-era psychiatrist Hans Asperger and his treatment of boys with autism. Those defined by Asperger as “favorable cases” received education and mercy, while the others received a diagnosis. Hans Asperger never harmed children himself, but his diagnoses disguised what was really a cultural death sentence.
Outrage, abject from the height of its moral grounds, is based on a slightly different but similar premise. One where diagnosing the racist, the misogynist or the homophobe affords some mercy, and others a social death sentence. Many of the outraged exist today as a sort of modern-day version of Hans Asperger, delivering the fatal diagnosis and then stepping aside to watch the ensuing destruction as if there is no blood on their hands, all because this person in this moment deserved it.
Yet, as the novelist Salvatore Scibona offers in a brilliant essay, “Is there no way of discussing these controversies that doesn’t come down to whether an offender deserved the punishment?”
The proclivity of outrage to deliver immediate judgment and trap its practitioners in a jury box leaves the human mind incapable of any deep moral response, Scibona writes. “Because a judgment so often impairs (our) ability to notice what doesn’t conform with it,” avoiding the call to outrage instead compels “a moral response from us that’s more challenging than mere approval or disapproval.”
That is why outrage culture, in all its willful brutality, reveals the need for a reimagined form of advocacy and a renewed commitment to the liberal principles that permeated the minds of so many of our world’s heroes — those like the abolitionist and reformer Frederick Douglass, the civil and gay rights leader Bayard Rustin, or the Victorian-era journalist George Eliot.
An ode to liberal thought, advocacy beyond outrage refuses to level an assault on the soul but rather on ideas, an assault eloquent enough to extend beyond the horizon of a singular moment.
Moving beyond outrage acknowledges the impotence of lurking behind a screen and compels action steeped with restraint. It looks something like the comment by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern following the horrific Christchurch shootings, stating in an interview, “my messages are never directly targeted at individuals.”
She channels an essential truth: the crux of injustice is far greater than any one individual.
Liberal restraint, in its subversion of outrage, encourages a certain depth of thought in tension with absolute certainty. It rejects the binary labels of good and evil, conceding their inadequacy. It enables our heart and minds to be altered in a more meaningful way — to instead bear witness and be dutifully changed by the injustice before our eyes. It allows us to see more than we had before.
“Witness, protest, and resistance,” Jon Meacham writes in “The Soul of America,”can and does “lift us to higher ground.” But without restraint, without a vision beyond the tyranny of our own outrage, America cannot reveal the true power of all that accompanies its liberal democracy and its founding principle.
It is a principle that has still yet to be fully realized but one to which we must ceaselessly and endlessly aspire: “All men are created equal.”
Hancen Sale is a senior majoring in economics. He can be reached at email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @hancen4sale.
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