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Outrage Theater

June 14, 2015


Photo: Brian (CC)

A long time ago in a place known as the Internet, people would occasionally TYPE IN ALL CAPS TO EXPRESS ANGER AND LOUDNESS.

(Or they would just have the Caps Lock on by accident.)

Other people would come along and politely ask (or rudely demand) that the OP (original poster) would stop “shouting.” It might have the desired effect, or it might incite everyone to BEGIN FURIOUSLY POUNDING THEIR KEYBOARDS AT FULL VOLUME.

I’ve seen a lot of Facebook discussion filled with rampant typos, casual racism and sexism, ugly homophobia, bigotry, idiocy and trolling … but way fewer all-caps posts. Progress.

To fill the vacuum, we have a legit successor to flame wars, cyberbullying, going viral, slacktivism, clickbait, subtweeting and doxing.

I call it Outrage Theater.

(I deliberately used something similar to the fiction of Security Theater.)

The online world seems to run primarily on outrage these days. No transgression is too small to bring the full weight of the commentariat raining down on an offender.

I find it alarming. I find it uncivilized and unkind.

Plenty of sites and personalities and bloggers make a fine living trafficking in outrage. The world will never run out of those who speak their puny minds, making others miserable. Their deliberate harm and willful ignorance deserves a response. A proportional response.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin brings up this discussion in the White House in his 1995 film, “The American President.” (And revisits — really, recycles — it in third episode of “The West Wing” titled … “A Proportional Response.”)

Through President Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas), Sorkin is asking us to weigh the options of lashing out in anger versus meting out a suitable retaliation. We have to overcome the automatic fight-or-flight response to every threat, real or imagined, that our lizard brains perceive. Otherwise, we always come out swinging.

The Internet has no place for nuance, for proportional responses. Either we’re outraged or we’re not. Every transgressor must be smote or set free.

The problem with the trend of all outrage all the time is that it will eventually fizzle out. And things that truly deserve outrage (dictators, murderers, rapists, unhinged corporations, warlords) will have been reduced to the same level as the jerk who broke into my house 7 years ago and stole about $200 worth of electronics.

Certainly, I’d like to find the burglar and thank him with the business end of my car. But I know rationally that the particular punishment I’ve chosen doesn’t quite fit the crime.

We’ve lost all perspective when someone speaking their mind, no matter how offensively and stupidly, merits global online outrage calling for death, abuse of the immediate family and unceasing ridicule till the next poor sap stumbles along. Even lesser offenses and petty crimes warrant full-bore public shaming.

Could we not better spend our time building things up rather than tearing things down?

I’m no innocent. I’ve called people out (online and in real life), and I’ve been called out. I’ve trolled, and subtweeted, and done my fair share of gossiping and bullying. I doubt I have the maturity to apologize for most of it, though I will definitely own up to all of it.

In thinking about all of this, I had a great speaker under consideration to give the opening keynote at my conference last week. She has been through her share of Outrage Theater, and I thought her story would be enlightening and informative.

She wasn’t available this time, but I still hope she’ll consider a future trip here. We need the education.

Each of us might feel a tiny bit superior in performing our role in this theater of the damned, casting a pebble upon the villain of the moment. But it doesn’t really change anything, does it?



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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Arlee Bird permalink
    June 15, 2015 12:15 am

    I think there is to much unfounded and irrational outrage everywhere these days and not just online. Too many have become hypersensitive and overly pc about whatever is said that they don’t agree with. Jerry Seinfeld’s recently publicized comments about this are very true.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

    • June 15, 2015 12:26 am

      I have mixed feelings about political correctness.

      I am a strong advocate for free speech, and the responsibility and repercussions that come from it. I’m not crazy about folks who open their mouths without any regard to how their hateful words affect others.

      But nowadays, I’m more concerned about the overflow of outrage corroding our interactions, online and in life.

      Thanks for your comment, Lee.


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