Rage Against the Touchscreen
In an age of constant outrage, we must reassess what we allow ourselves to be outraged by
Amid today’s cacophony of information, the easiest way to get attention is to provoke. As such, being offended and outraged are, for many millions of people, everyday experiences of digital life.
And yet, offence and outrage remain poorly understood. Most people are intimately familiar with how they feel, but they have little concept of the origins and purposes of such feelings. The answers are available with a little introspection, and considering them can help us to make better decisions and avoid being manipulated.
Viewed from afar, outrage seems a bizarre emotion. It is, in essence, the tendency for certain information to instantly turn us into violent hyperactive idiots. But all emotions serve an evolutionary purpose. Fear protects us from danger, envy spurs us to improve our station, regret compels us to learn from mistakes. Outrage and its little brother, offence, also have a point.
The purpose of offence and outrage are to enforce personal, social, and political rules. We feel offended by small transgressions, and outraged by big ones. To understand why such feelings are necessary, consider the environment that shaped our species for 90% of its history, hunter-gatherer society.
The earliest known written laws date back 4000 years to the code of Hammurabi, which means that 98% of human existence was likely lived without codified, set-in-stone rules. In that pre-legal epoch we needed a way to enforce the tacit agreements upon which our societies depended. Offence and outrage thus became part of our tribal security apparatus, alarm systems activated in response to transgressions of moral boundaries, intimidating would-be transgressors into respect.
An example of a boundary that needed to be policed in tribal societies is the fair distribution of resources. This line, known as inequity aversion, is so important even monkeys enforce it; when they realize they're receiving unequal resources from experimenters, they flip out.
Offence and outrage once served us well, but as time has gone on, many new personal, social, and political boundaries have been created, and with them, the list of things to be offended and outraged about. Most of these new provocations, far from alerting us to anything meaningful, exist to hijack our ancestral alarm systems and lead us astray.
Firstly, the online attention economy ceaselessly barrages us with new outrages, from news of injustices to awful opinions. These offences are heavily selected for by information filters—editorial, algorithmic, etc—because they get more engagement; few things motivate people to share and comment more than indignation.
Secondly, society is constantly inventing new injustices, typically for political reasons. Take, for example, the word "retard." Many people find this word deeply offensive, and if you ask why, they'll say because it was historically used to classify people with mental disabilities. That sounds like a perfectly reasonable explanation, until you ask them if they have a problem with the word "idiot" or "imbecile" or "moron" or "cretin." They'll say they don't, even though all of these words were also used to classify people with mental disabilities. (As a case in point, Queen Elizabeth II's own first cousins, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon, were officially diagnosed as "imbeciles" at birth, which prompted the Royal family to fake their deaths and lock them away in a care home to be forgotten.)
So what happened to make the word "retard" offensive but all the other former terms for mentally disabled people acceptable? It was a rule imposed on us by mere literary convention, which was itself a result of socially amplified whims. Put simply, we all spontaneously decided to have a specific emotional reaction to a certain word but not to other words with the same meaning, because we were told to.
Social justice activists are constantly reclassifying old words as newly offensive. "Colored" used to be a common way to refer to non-white people, and even now is used by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), but the woke, mostly white literati who lord over our language decided one day that "colored people" was offensive, and instead "people of color" must be used. (Unfortunately, a writer and lifelong campaigner for social justice, 71 year old Mercedes Lackey, didn't get the memo, so she was recently excommunicated from the literary world.)
The combination of the digital age constantly exposing us to new outrages and cultural elites constantly creating new outrages out of nothing has skyrocketed the number of outrages we now face. In a world prickling with provocations, we cannot let our sensitivities roam free. If we allow ourselves to be goaded by every visible indignation, we'll be endlessly distracted from our goals, and easily controlled by emotional manipulators like trolls, disinformation agents, and demagogues.
As such, we must free ourselves from the tangle of lines to not be crossed, separate the genuine boundaries from the artificial ones, and carefully choose what we allow ourselves to be outraged about.
One line you should always enforce is your own integrity. Set rules of behavior for yourself and follow them. If you can't maintain the boundary of your own self-respect, you won't be able to maintain any others.
All other boundaries are negotiable, but most are not worth your time. The best approach here is via negativa; abandoning boundaries you don’t need to police. Provocations that aren't worth your time include those that are trivial or invulnerable:
Trivial provocations are those manufactured from nothing, usually by political and cultural elites to justify their ideological beliefs. Examples include the pseudo-taboo "colored people" (I assure you, most of us colored people don't care whether you call us "colored people" or "people of color").
Unlike trivial provocations, invulnerable provocations are often genuine problems, but they're also ones you can't do much about. Being outraged by any and every injustice is natural, but in the digital age it's also unsustainable, because grave injustices are occurring every single second (millisecond if you count animals). So you have to focus on the few injustices you have real power to remedy, or else live your life in a state of unquenchable outrage as a terminally rabid beast.
Whenever you encounter a provocation, ask yourself if it's trivial or invulnerable. If so, remove it from your list of concerns. This way you'll greatly reduce the number of boundaries you feel the need to police, ensuring that the boundaries you do police can be done so with greater rigor.
Once you've disentangled the lines you wish to enforce from the mess, you then have another dilemma; how to enforce them. Because the old ways won't work.
In ancient times, a short temper was an effective deterrent against would-be transgressors, because rage constituted a very real threat in societies in which blood was often spilled in anger. Nowadays, rage does nothing but make you stupid. No one is going to be intimidated by you finger-stabbing your keyboard in ALL CAPS from halfway across the world. If anything, going berserk online will only make the trolls troll you harder.
We must train ourselves not to surrender to this obsolete impulse. To do that, we must separate the feeling of anger with the compulsion of anger. The feeling of anger is valuable because, as your personal security alarm, it lets you know that a boundary has been crossed. But the compulsion of anger, the animating force that drives you to punch the wall or roar at the top of your lungs, is not just useless in our digital age, but counterproductive.
The way to separate the two aspects of anger is to view emotions not as commands but as information. Like a car alarm, they notify you to a possible situation, but they don't offer an answer to it. So, the next time you feel offence or outrage, disobey your reflexes by pausing, stepping back, and surveying the scene as you'd do if any other alarm went off. Then you can assess the cause of the commotion and, if it’s not a false alarm, begin to piece together the most efficient solution.
In personal situations, the most efficient solution to continued provocation is usually to exit the provocateur's life. If they're an online troll, block them. If they're a treacherous friend, ghost them. Leaving someone's life is a luxury we're lucky to have. Our distant ancestors had to make do with the people in their tribe, but we can have a relationship with any one of millions of people without even leaving our bedroom. Trying to form a relationship with someone who doesn't respect your chosen boundaries prevents you from forming a relationship with someone who does, and in this way offence can alert you to the possibility of a better social life.
As for enforcing political boundaries—societal oppression and other injustices—ask yourself what you can best do to end the injustice. If you have time, volunteer. If you have money, give it to those who can help. If you have influence, calmly spread awareness of the issue. If you can't do anything about it, then your outrage is better spent on other things. But before doing anything else, ask yourself if the cause of your outrage—whether a news article or social media post—was not created specifically to outrage you, because chances are, it was.
Outrage drives online politics, so the internet will naturally produce ever more of it. New red lines, new boundaries on what is and isn't acceptable, will continue to criss-cross the web. Amid such a thick tangle of lines, it's easy to lose track of the ones worth enforcing, but enforcing lines matters more than ever, because it's the only way to maintain order in an increasingly cluttered world. Be deliberate in choosing the lines you'll uphold—ensure they're not fake or undefendable—and when such lines are crossed, feel the tug of outrage without being pulled by it. Otherwise you’ll find that the lines you were so fervently enforcing were in fact your own puppet-strings.