Outrage Culture: When You're the Target

Grant's last outrage in LouisianaIf you contribute online atheist-oriented content in the form of blog posts, podcasts, YouTube videos, or social media posts, you will likely be the target of outrage culture sooner or later. If you think you'll be immune because you do not have enough traffic or status to be a worthwhile target, think again. All it takes is someone who is deemed a worthwhile target sharing your content to get the attention of those who would seek to punish you.

So what should you do when it is your turn to be the target of the perpetually outraged? There is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all approach, but I'll offer some suggestions that I've found helpful. But first, I'd like to explain what to avoid.

What Not To Do

One of the effects of our outrage culture is that greater levels of outrage seem to be needed over time as the audience begins to habituate to the near constant presence of outrage. Our recognition of this, when combined with some basic knowledge of psychology, will show us what to avoid.

Imagine that you suddenly find yourself on the receiving end of a torrent of outrage. You decide to ignore it. You're not going to respond because it is ridiculous. Good for you! You are doing the right thing here. But the outrage builds. It doesn't fade away like you thought it would and seems to keep growing. You get nervous and begin to question your choice to ignore it. And then, you give in. As the outrage increases, you give in and apologize, take the post down, or whatever else. The outraged declare victory.

So what's the problem? By holding out initially and then giving in when the outrage increased, you've just taught the outraged something important: the greater the outrage, the more likely we'll win. You have unknowingly shaped their behavior toward even greater outrage in the future.

If you are going to hold your ground, you must be willing to stand firm even as the outrage increases. In fact, you must predict that it will increase initially as a result of your ignoring it. This is typical. It will almost always get worse before it goes away.

What To Do

Now that we've got the easy part out of the way, what should you do when you're the target of the perpetually outraged? This is one of those questions that is tough to answer for everyone because we all differ in our tolerance of outrage, our goals for using the Internet, our personalities, and all sorts of other things. Still, it is possible to offer some general suggestions.

1. Learn to Distinguish Between Criticism and Outrage

The first thing I'm going to do when the outrage machine starts up is make sure that I'm not misconstruing criticism for outrage. The difference is usually rather easy to detect. The critic seeks to provoke thought and/or help me improve the content. The critic is able to do so in a non-antagonistic way. Sure, the criticism may sting, but it is just criticism. The outraged seek to punish and destroy while elevating their status (this is true even though most people will at least pay lip service to the idea that "...we have to be able to disagree with each other without trying to destroy each other"). The outraged are playing to an audience as much if not more so than they are even trying to communicate with me. They would far rather turn others against me than persuade me of anything.

2. Review Your Content

The next thing I'll do is go back and review my content to determine if I said what I wanted to say clearly. I do make mistakes, and this could have been one of them. If so, I have no problem revising the content and/or apologizing. Maybe I did exactly what the outraged are claiming. If I screwed up, I want to own that and make it right.

3. Disengage and Resist the Pull to Respond

In an article from August in the New York Times, Nick Bilton offered some excellent advice for any of us who find ourselves on the receiving end of the perpetual outrage machine.
I asked a number of journalists whose job it is to be attacked by people online, and they said they simply don’t respond. An editor at The New Yorker said, “The rule about engaging is that you should never engage.” A former Gawker employee said a mantra at the company is to, “Never complain, never explain.” A co-worker at The New York Times told me, “Don’t feed the trolls.” And another said that angry tweets are simply “spitballs on a battleship.”
When faced with social media outrage, resist the pull to respond.

Seems obvious, doesn't it? Then why is it so difficult to heed this advice? I can think of at least two reasons. First, many of us want to explain ourselves because we think that those expressing outrage might have misunderstood us. The mistake we are making here is one of assuming the outraged are more rational than is probably the case. I've certainly fallen into this trap many times. What I have found is that the sort of genuine misunderstandings that can easily be corrected are rare. Much of the time, the outraged aren't interested in understanding anything; they are interested in attacking their target and will not easily be deterred. Intense emotion, righteous indignation, and irrationality abound. Besides, much of the outrage we see today isn't even about whatever you said as much as it is about playing to an audience.

The second reason is the one Bilton addresses in his article and concerns our impulse to respond in kind. When we are being called names, it is tempting to return the favor. And yet, this is almost always counterproductive. Doing this amounts to feeding trolls, and we end up looking irrational in the process. The outraged declare victory because we have just confirmed their suspicions of us. Not only that, but others in the audience are likely to be disappointed with our loss of control.

As challenging as it can be at times, I really do think that disengagement is the key here. Bilton writes:
Since last year, after my brief Twitter fight, I’ve chosen to respond very selectively to online debates. While I share links about hot topics, including Israel and Gaza, I no longer engage with people who are trying to pick a public fight, and I completely ignore any smidgen of online snark.
I've improved considerably at doing this myself, and it has certainly made my Twitter experience much better than I imagine it would be otherwise. What I find is that the outraged go away quickly when they realize I'm not going to take their bait.