Outrage Culture: Introduction

English: An Internet troll in its native habitat.
An Internet troll in its native habitat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Internet has been referred to as a great equalizer in the sense that it puts the power to disseminate ideas in the hands of many who previously lacked an effective way to spread their message. One no longer needs to own a newspaper, radio station, or television channel to share one's views with a global audience. Instead, one can start a blog, a podcast, or a YouTube channel and participate in a variety of social media platforms.

As a result of these capabilities, the Internet has become a bastion of free expression where unpopular views can find a home. Some of the messages now spread by the Internet are potentially beneficial (e.g., informing the public about police brutality, war crimes, political corruption); others are potentially destructive (e.g., racism, xenophobia, misogyny). This seems inevitable as the Internet has become an effective means of spreading the sort of diverse viewpoints and dissenting views that often ignored by many in the mainstream news media. In fact, this is a big part of what makes it so attractive to many of us who do not feel that our interests are adequately represented by what we read in newspapers or see on television news.

Atheism is an excellent example of this, for it remains a minority view and is still considered a taboo subject by many. While we are certainly hearing more about atheism today than we did only 10 years ago, it still pales in comparison to what we hear about religion. Fortunately, it has become easy for people curious about atheism to find information on the Internet. I suspect that the meteoric rise of atheism on the Internet is one of the reasons that we are hearing a bit more about atheism from the traditional news media.

What is Outrage Culture?

Although many of us are drawn to Internet communication because dissenting views can flourish here (e.g., atheism), this sentiment is far from unanimous. Over the last several years, we have witnessed the rise of something that has been referred to as outrage culture (or call-out culture) that threatens the free expression on the Internet and undermines civil discourse in important ways.

Outrage culture refers to the presence of socio-cultural factors that foster the expression of outrage in place of the calm and rational exchange of ideas. The sort of outrage we're talking about here is not synonymous with criticism. Many people manage to provide reasoned, thoughtful, even constructive criticism of ideas they encounter on the Internet. This is not outrage.

Cathy Young opened her article that appeared in The New York Times earlier this summer with the following:

Earlier this month, social media’s perpetual-outrage machine went into overdrive when the Miss USA pageant winner, Nevada’s Nia Sanchez, suggested that one answer to the problem of sexual assault on college campuses was for women to “learn to protect themselves.” A flurry of Twitter posts lambasted Sanchez, a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, for promoting “victim-blaming” and “rape culture.” Journalist Emily Yoffe encountered a similar backlash last year when she wrote that teaching young women (and men) to avoid excessive drinking should be part of preventing campus sexual assault. Indeed, the very fact that women are given rape-prevention advice is often cited as proof that our culture condones sexual violence: Otherwise, we would apparently “teach men not to rape.”

The hallmarks of the sort of outrage we see all over social media these days include:

  • Dogpiling
  • Rapid escalation
  • A lack of interest in dialogue (i.e., the focus is on wild accusations and public shaming rather than on discussion)
  • Angry personal attacks
  • Public complaints, aired before an audience and designed to inflame the audience
  • Overgeneralization with little consideration of context or intent (e.g., "Because you said this one thing, it is clear that you are a monster worthy of condemnation even though I don't know you or anything about you!")

We are used to this now. Someone expresses an opinion that social justice warriors don't like (or believe they can exploit for gain), and he or she is quickly descended upon by hordes of perpetually-outraged people on social media.

Many have noted that outrage culture often seems to involve infighting, and this is how it has typically been experienced in the atheist/humanist/skeptic/secular communities. Ariel Meadow Stallings (Offbeat Empire) said that the biggest challenge for her and her liberal co-bloggers is not dealing with offended advertisers or conservatives as one might expect but "attacks from our fellow progressives."

Over the past couple years, I've watched the rise of this new form of online performance art, where internet commenters make public sport of flagging potentially problematic language as insensitive, and gleefully calling out authors as needing to check their privilege.

Stallings characterizes this as "liberal bullying" and notes that it is particularly challenging to see this behavior coming from those with whom she shares political values. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

I have heard outrage culture referred to as "PC on steroids," referring to an angry and over-the-top form of political correctness. There is some truth to this, as much of modern outrage culture seems to come from the left. While much of the hostility I see on the Internet, especially from atheists, does not always have anything to do with politics, the group efforts (i.e., dogpiling) often seem to. Of course, this could be at least partially due to the relatively greater numbers of atheists one finds on the left of the political spectrum. So while I think there is something to the "PC on steroids" or social justice warrior narrative, we must acknowledge that conservatives who are not into PC or social justice warriorism are not immune. One can find plenty of outrage there too.

Whatever else we may wish to say about outrage culture, it is fairly obvious that it has been around for at least a few years. Writing for The Guardian in 2012, Suzanne Moore noted:

The internets is, of course, where we go to be offended and then display our moral superiority, maybe by tweeting or blogging. There is no offence that can't be hashtagged, no Facebook group that cannot collect itself at great speed.

From what I've been able to gather, many people were writing about outrage culture prior to 2012 (I've found mentions as early as 2008). What is still relatively new, taking shape in the last five years or so, is the evidence of the growth of outrage culture in the atheist/humanist/skeptic/secular communities. Whatever hopes we might have once had that reason and respect for freethought might shield us from these cultural forces have been dashed.

But Why Outrage Culture?

We could be talking about bad behavior on the Internet, and if we were, we'd have little need for the "culture" label. The addition of "culture" here suggests that there are cultural forces that foster the behavior we are labeling outrage culture. So, is this the case? I think so.

I have heard many theories about why participating in outrage culture is appealing to some people. Most of them emphasize characteristics of the individual. They include concepts like:

  • Narcissism and entitlement
  • Poor impulse control
  • Self-righteousness and difficulty establishing one's identity
  • Making us feel better about our empty lives by celebrating the shortcomings of others

While some of this is interesting to those of us who are interested in psychology, I have trouble not seeing the footprint of culture here. Growing impersonalization and the breakdown in real-life communities are difficult to ignore, and what we know of human behavior suggests that interaction effects are likely. The narcissistic person with poor impulse control and an unclear sense of identity is more likely to struggle in certain environments and when exposed to certain cultural influences (e.g., lack of community, online anonymity, fetish with celebrity). But there may be even simpler ways of understanding what is happening here.

If an individual craves attention and the culture he or she inhabits grants attention for outrage, we have a clear example of why cultural forces are relevant. Moreover, it is becoming obvious that many media outlets are now actively manipulating outrage for page views. According to Robtheidealist (Orchestrated Pulse),

Media outlets have got this viral internet craze thing down to a science, literally. It’s not really about creating quality content; the internet game is all about getting as many readers to view and share the story as possible.

In this context of shareability and hair-trigger publishing, outrage is one of the most reliable ways to draw attention to a story. In social justice circles, like many other places on the web, the outrage machine often operates at a fever pitch.

Perhaps outrage culture is popular primarily because it works, translating into the sort of attention (e.g., traffic, retweets) many crave. Self-righteous outrage aimed at high-status figures within one's own community may even yield attention from actual journalists. If outrage culture gets us what we want, do not expect it to go away anytime soon.

For more on this topic, see Outrage Culture: Effects.