September 24, 2014

Outrage Culture: Effects

Profesor Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Now that we have at least a cursory understanding of what we mean by outrage culture, we can ask ourselves why it is worth discussing. Is it merely an annoyance we are likely to encounter from time-to-time that we should just ignore, or could it affect us in ways we might not like?

From what I have observed, the effects of outrage culture are extensive in the sense that it has changed how people interact with one another. It has impacted businesses and how they deal with their employees, celebrities and how they interact with the public, blogs and how they view their audience, and it has had a pervasive impact at institutions of higher education. Just think of how many times you've read something online and thought to yourself, "The author is going to take some heat for that."

Paradoxically, outrage culture has effectively neutered some genuinely necessary social justice activism (i.e., it is difficult to bring about transformative change when one merely drifts from one outrage to another). It divides activist communities, fueling tribalism and turning potential allies against one another. How are we supposed to make progress on real-world goals when we spend so much of our time fighting with each other on the Internet?

And not surprisingly, outrage culture is a threat to free speech, one which aims to limit the exchange of unpopular ideas for which the Internet has been so beneficial. I have seen many atheists, for example, suggesting that Richard Dawkins should not use Twitter. Why? It seems that he has a tendency to say things with which they disagree. Evidently, it would be preferable for him to remain silent. Outrage culture can even serve to limit the type of material we have access to.

As concerning as all of this should be, I am beginning to think that there is an even more troubling aspect of outrage culture, one that makes it especially toxic and resistant to change: outrage culture seems to provide cover for treating others poorly.

In 2011, Flavia Dzoden (Tiger Beatdown) wrote one of the most comprehensive explanations of this I have yet found:
No, call out culture is toxic because it has developed as a tool to legitimize aggression and rhetoric violence. Its intent, at the root, is seemingly positive. Constructive even. It works more or less like this: I say something ignorant. Perhaps I make a statement that can be constructed as bigoted or maybe “problematic”. A favorite word in call out culture, problematic is more often than not, used to mean “I didn’t like it” or alternatively, “I disagree with you”. But instead of saying you, the audience disagrees with me, you will call my statement “problematic”. And because we have established that we are at once consumers and producers of media content, you create a blog post or a tweet or a Facebook update “calling me out”. And more often than not, in your post, you tell your readers, other prosumers, to please join you in this call out. BECAUSE THIS IS A SERIOUS WRONG THAT NEEDS TO BE CORRECTED! Unbeknown to me, there are now ten posts in ten different blogs and social media platforms calling me a “BIGOT AND THE WORST PERSON EVER”. Each time, every one of these posts escalating in rhetoric and volume. Each new post trying to outperform the previous one in outrage, in anger, in righteousness. This performance of acrimony and reproach turns into the “pile on”. And I will have to apologize for what I said. At this point, since I am nervous and probably anxious because I am being called THE WORST PERSON EVER, my apology will not be stellar. I might dig a deeper hole even, because hey, I cannot properly articulate when I feel that I am under duress. I might, at this point, say something that is truly, really “problematic”, not just perceived as such, but, to put it in plain words, I might say something shitty. AND OMG at this point the “call out” will escalate out of proportion. Now I am not just THE WORST PERSON EVER but since we have established that I was “a known feminist blogger” (and if I wasn’t up to that moment, I am now because my name is all over the internet!), then, it will be known that I, on my own, HAVE RUINED FEMINISM FOR EVER. And I, alone, will be proof of ALL OF FEMINISM’S PAST FAILURES. FOR EVER.
The victim of the outrage is thoroughly demonized; the outraged feel perfectly justified. And who pays the price? We all do. The victim either issues apologies and begins walking on eggshells, questioning his or her every word, or digs in and ends up becoming more like the what he or she was accused of being in the first place.

Meanwhile, reasoned discourse is replaced with hotter rhetoric and more outrage. Internet vigilantism and mob justice replace the presumption of innocence. The outraged feel justified in treating others in precisely the same ways about which they are so quick to complain (i.e., harassment, bullying).

In July, Teddy Wayne wrote the following in an article for The New York Times:
Though we are quick to condemn callousness and prejudice as a form of bullying, we less readily interrogate our own participation, even as bystanders, in the widespread attack of a single person, which is a classic example of bullying. We may justify our reaction as appropriate remediation for whatever crime has been perpetrated, but fighting fire with fire rarely elevates the discourse.
As the cycle of outrage repeats, the rhetoric escalates. Greater outrage is needed to obtain the same effect. In a sense, we habituate to the level of outrage so that more will be necessary over time to get the same results. Yesterday, it might have been enough to subtly suggest that something someone said was sexist. Today, we hear people being called "MRAs" and "misogynists." Tomorrow, this might not be good enough to get attention.

For more, see Outrage Culture: When You're the Target.
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