It’s called “outrage porn” for a good reason. Like pornography, it provides all of the sensations of a strong emotion without incurring any of the costs (time, relationship building, risk of rejection). It briefly satisfies our need to experience sensation but does not lead to meaningful engagement with anything. It is risk free, and, ultimately, it is an addiction that works against real human interaction.
And I do it. All the time. When I come across something stupid that Ann Coulter said, I forward it to my Facebook feed so that all of my friends can laugh at what stupid things conservatives believe. When I find an obscure news story about the Republican county clerk of some Southern village with 25 people and one Quick Trip, who says that Hillary Clinton is actually an alien impostor from the planet Exxar 4, I’m all over it. “New Republican Foreign Policy,” I announce, as I hit the “share” button. Mission accomplished. Outrage felt.
And this is how 300,000,000 people have managed to construct two mutually exclusive, epistemically self-contained echo chambers that are incapable of interacting with each other except through pointless insults in comment sections. And we are broken.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for righteous anger. And outrage has its place. There are a number of things happening in the United States right now that I am outraged about. But forwarding inflammatory articles and making fun of people who don’t agree with me is not the sort of action that is going to improve anything. This anemic level of human interaction is what got us into the mess we are in. It isn’t going to get us out.
Over the Christmas break, I have been reading (among other things) Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s masterful theological treatise, The Cost of Discipleship. In this book, Bonhoeffer draws a sharp distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” The distinction has some relevance for the topic of this post:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost!
. . . . . . . . . .
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Cheap grace is the belief that that we can have the benefits of a relationship with God without accepting the costs of a relationship with God—just as pornography is the attempt to have the physical pleasure of an intimate relationship without accepting the costs of an intimate relationship. What I am calling “cheap outrage,” then, follows from these two analogies: it is the belief that we deserve credit for being against things that we don’t like without actually accepting the costs of trying to change them. It is the belief that we have done something to make a situation better without having done anything but make the situation worse.
So, what does “costly outrage” look like? Following our analogies (which I think we should), it has something to do with relationships, and with being willing to actually try to persuade people to our point of view using the only persuasive strategies that actually work– which involve listening, respecting people, clarifying arguments, and considering their point of view as well.
It also means knowing what we are talking about. It has never been easier to read and learn about issues from multiple perspectives than it is right now. We can read newspapers in Pakistan, India, Russia, Israel, and Syria. We can watch English language television from Qatar. We can read in-depth analysis of important issues from multiple perspectives. And we can do all of this ON OUR PHONES.
But do we? No. We mainly fall for clickbait outrage porn, about half of which is made up by teenagers in Belarus trying to make a quick ruble. Or we watch news sites tailored to our own points of view and just get madder and madder about the other side, imagining what a perfect world we would live in if they would all magically cease to exist.
The experts (or at least the one that I clicked on from my Facebook this morning) say that New Year’s resolutions have to be specific, achievable, measurable, and sustainable. So this is mine: During 2017, I will not participating in the culture of cheap outrage by forwarding onto my social media feeds any articles with the purpose of humiliating, embarrassing, or otherwise ridiculing people or perspectives that I do not agree with. If I am outraged, I will learn what I am talking about and try to write something actually capable of persuading others to my point of view.
Feel free to call me out if I screw this up. That, too, is part of the cost of costly outrage. And if you’re up for it, join me. Maybe we can start a movement.