Why we're addicted to online outrage

The internet is angrier than ever. And that suggests something deeper than mere prickliness.

Angry man
(Image credit: (Thinkstock))

Why do we love to hate each other online? Over at Beta Beat Ryan Holiday writes about "outrage porn," the steady stream of insincerely performed umbrage and gulping hysteria that seeps like superconcentrated vinegar out of the web's pores every moment of every day. He writes, "'Outrage porn,' as we've come to call it, checks all the boxes of compelling content — it's high valence, it drives comments, it assuages the ego, projects guilt onto a scapegoat, and looks good in your Facebook Feed."

Holiday points to stories about Steve Martin's "racist" Twitter joke, or the way Lena Dunham was photoshopped, and wonders if the cynical manufacture of trivial outrage dulls our senses to real outrages that demand real action, like the displacement of 2 million Syrians from civil war. Perhaps it does, but Holiday doesn't offer an explanation of why we are addicted to outrage, only venturing that it is somehow selfish.

When faced citizen to citizen in real-life social situations — with the notable exception of mass political demonstrations — the instincts that outrage porn tries to awaken in us are mostly suppressed or barely felt at all. Imagine treating the person sitting next to you at a bar with the touchy insolence of an internet flame war, or re-interpreting his colloquial impressions about the world according to the tendentious and aggrieved norms of the combox. It's almost impossible. A guy could get his ass kicked trying. We usually tolerate the bar-stool ingrate, seek points of understanding (and often find a few), or dismiss him as deluded and mostly harmless.

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But bathed in the glow of our computers, we imagine that we are in a battle of titanic scale. And it's either us, spotless and infallible, or them, dastardly and shameless.

On one level, "outrage porn" at least promises to stimulate an internet grazer who is bored at work, or perhaps even bored with life. It makes him feel like an actor in a great moral struggle, either as victim or as triumphant voice of justice. Indeed, savvy media organizations train their headline writers to find the "stakes" that matter to readers, and one way to do that is to generate anxiety about being in the unfairly hated or the righteously hating parts of American life.

But I'd suggest tentatively that there may be deeper trends at work. The desire for this kind of participation in the drama of public life may be exacerbated by the decline of civic participation, and a quiet despair that our precious franchise amounts to a mere 1-in–100 million say in the affairs of the nation. Constantly minded by others above us (managers, landlords, creditors) and feeling rather powerless as political actors in the real world, the virtual mob seems attractive.

Another reason for our outrage addiction may be found in the way the norms of traditional liberalism are dissolving before a more moralized politics. In a perceptive 2001 essay for National Affairs, Thomas Powers argued that traditional liberalism sought "to lower the stakes of politics by removing contentious moral (and religious) opinion to the private sphere. Political life thereby becomes a less morally charged matter of presiding over competing 'interest groups,' whose squabbling is amenable to compromise."

Powers went on to argue that when fundamental justice and morality are reintroduced into politics, and when the beliefs and attitudes of citizens become the potential subject of state action (through amelioration, re-education, or official stigma), people are more likely to fight — and to fight with dread in their eyes.

It's notable that ongoing culture-war disputes are the particular habitué of elite media, white-collar job-havers who spend much of their day sitting in front of the outrage generator. We spend all day worrying about who are the real bad guys, and the real victims. Our ideological songs venture into ever higher falsettos, straining to sing our laments above the noise.

As a result, when a politician utters a barely outdated cliché, or the slightest impolitic word, we no longer hear it as a faux pas or mere insensitivity. Instead it becomes the latest menacing incarnation of the evil we oppose. Micro-aggression is no longer "micro" at all, but the very real appearance of Patriarchy, or Anti-clericalism, or whatever evil you most fear. If your ideological hearing aids are tuned correctly, a gaffe becomes a threat, returning you to witch-trial-era Salem or the Vendée before the massacre.

Worse, this kind of hypermoralized politics has some serious implications for how we look at governance and power. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, "Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive." In other words, if we are simply doing good in the world, and our enemies evil, then there's no limit to the power we ought to acquire. What a charming fantasy that can be.

Holiday is right to be concerned that our capacity for real outrage is dulled by the sort of "outrage" that we perform, or fake, or convince ourselves to feel in our self-regard. But we should consider the possibility that fake-outrage is popular precisely because it is an indulgence that requires so little from us. Fake outrage allows us to hide within the mob, to feel righteous without doing much of anything, to suffer like martyrs from words not spoken to us. If we subtracted all the outrage porn tomorrow, most of us would continue to do what we already are doing about the Syrian refugee crisis, or faraway famine, or unjust war: nothing.

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