My New Year’s Resolution: No More Cheap Outrage

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.

Comments

  1. Count me in. It may take all of 2017 to even start, but I’ll take a shot at it.

  2. lastlemming says:

    Better yet, you can do the opposite. When Glenn Beck says we should try to understand Black Live Matter, forward that. When Mother Jones says that the Sanders campaign has “crossed into Neverland,” forward that. That’s how you disrupt the echo chamber.

  3. Aaron Brown says:

    “I will not participate in the culture of cheap outrage…”

    No worries, Mike. I’ll do it enough for the both of us.

    Aaron B

  4. Open Letter to BCC: You should be ashamed of yourselves! Read on to find out more. #3 will blow your mind.

  5. Michael, I’m completely with you on this resolution. In fact, I’m determined that if I can’t keep to it, then I really need to abandon social media entirely. So this will be a scary and potentially embarrassing test then. I appreciate your post, because it pushes me to take it!

  6. I think I’m going to be countercyclical. For years all I posted on social media sites were meaty think pieces and photos of my exotic vacations. Ok, pretty much just vacation photos. Now that the president-elect is nearly upon us, I feel that my silent introspection dues have been paid.

  7. ROFL, yeah right. You don’t have the emotional fortitude. Is that too blunt? No memory of the specific content, but it took you all of 5 seconds to ban me on FB over a comment I made responding to some snarky troll MEME you posted. At the time I chuckled, just another liberal that likes to dish it out but can’t take it. Go ahead, have your echo chamber. So now you have some New Years Resolution (TM) to not be such a sissy, which I applaud, but I expect you’ll demonstrate about as much discipline with this goal as your resolution to obey the spirit of the word of wisdom and learn how to use a treadmill. Best of luck though…

  8. Mary Lythgoe Bradfford says:

    I AM WITH YOU MIKE

  9. I expect you’ll demonstrate about as much discipline with this goal as your resolution to obey the spirit of the word of wisdom and learn how to use a treadmill.

    The pain sits deep, doesn’t it?

  10. Amen. I have had a little post-it with these lines from Jacques Barzun on my wall for years: “Resentment and indignation are feelings dangerous to the possessor and to be sparingly used. They give comfort too cheaply; they rot judgment, and by encouraging passivity, they come to require that evil continue for the sake of the grievance to be enjoyed. Criticism, on the contrary, aims at action. True, not all objects can be acted on at once, and many will not be reshaped according to desire; but thought is plastic and within our control, and thought is a form of action. To come to see, in the light of criticism, a situation as different from what it seemed to be, is to have accomplished an important act.”

  11. thanks Mike — a needed and uncomfortable sermon

  12. I keep trying to be a grownup but instead just learn new ways in which I’ve failed. I have done this over and over for a lifetime. But, you inspire me to try again. Thanks.

    P.S. It’ll be messy. (Looking at you, Andrew.)

    And a quick hat-tip to Kristine for that nugget of cognitive nutrition.

  13. Really good comparison, Michael. I love your resolution!

  14. Thanks, Mike. Since the election I’ve concluded that social media is worse than useless as a medium for political speech: it’s probably a net negative. Social media can be useful as a tool for political organizing, though. Posting my opinions just feeds the echo chamber; calling my elected representatives seems mostly useless, given who they are, but at least it’s premised on a relationship that has some kind of accountability built in.

    Kristine: that Barzun quote is fantastic.

  15. Posting this directly above a cheap outrage post about the Mormon tabernacle choir is ironic.

  16. This is a great essay and I agree many aspects of it. And I struggle with this problem and need to work on it. However, I think it is a false equivalency to compare it to pornography. You said, “Just as pornography is the attempt to have the physical pleasure of an intimate relationship without accepting the costs of an intimate relationship.” That is only one aspect of pornography. The greatest problem with pornography is not actually for the user (although, that is also a great problem), but for those being exploited and used in the creating of pornography. Many women who appear in pornography are victims of sex trafficking. And many who aren’t are still being exploited and pressured to do things they don’t feel comfortable with. Many are abused in the producing process and filming. Many are under 18, which means they are victims of child abuse. Even in the best case scenarios, most women are being pimped out much like prostitution in the sense that producers pay them a small fraction of the amount of money they make out of them. And in all cases (with real people), women and men are being used and objectified.

    Pornography encompasses the systemic abuse of women (and children). I wholeheartedly deplore the casual use of the word porn tacked on to the end of anything to signify obsession with it.

  17. Here is a facebook thread that deals with the over-use of the word porn:
    Kelly C.
    1 hr
    Can we stop tacking the word “porn” onto everything? Word-porn, food-porn, etc. Do we really want to compare the wonderful things in our world to a horrific, soul-crushing industry? Please stop.
    Comments
    Emily YES!
    Like · Reply · 3 · 1 hr
    Marianne lol i was just discussing this at work my friend says “sexy food” instead of food porn :P
    Like · Reply · 3 · 1 hr
    Dina Ignorant ppl, mostly hipsters do that, hipsters suck
    Like · Reply · 3 · 1 hr
    GL Robsn “Poverty porn” is a popular one. Although intruding on people who are working class and mocking it, is pretty degrading.
    Like · Reply · 3 · 29 mins
    Lindaloo J It’s just normalising it further !!! “Porn ” is such a trendy word :( I don’t mind using it here , but I even try n say the full word pornography , just to give it some edge ! I’m so sick of the porn – word !
    Like · Reply · 4 · 27 mins
    GL Robsn “Pornography” etymology: the writings of prostitutes :'(
    Like · Reply · 1 · 23 mins

  18. Mike, great resolutions but I think you should add that we should not contribute “scholarly” work that is also part of a misguided intellectualism that sees everything in the church and its leaders as wrong, petty, cruel or unsophisticated. A constant barrage of criticism against what some people consider sacred does not contribute to a dialogue. Cheap outrage often comes out of a cheap and lazy intellectualism.

  19. That greatly reduces outrage output. I hope you are prepared for that.
    But, it’s wise.

  20. I’m with you, Mike. And that quote is wonderful, Kristine.

  21. “Posting this directly above a cheap outrage post about the Mormon tabernacle choir is ironic.”

    No it isn’t. First, it was written by someone else who has not resolved to avoid cheap outrage. Second, BCC does not practice kin liability. Finally, the post in question does not trade in cheap outrage.

  22. You’ve put in rousing words exactly where I’ve been wanting to steer myself this year. Thank you!

    “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God” 2 Timothy 1:7-8

    (And if this is the same Mike Austin who used to hold forth down in the belly of the whale in the old JKHB grad carrels circa 1990 — I know you can do it, because your heart is good.)

  23. Dave Williams says:

    Contact Glenn Beck about this very approach. It’s the foundation of his apology tour. He’ll have you on his TV show for sure.

  24. Wow! Some of the comments. Yes, what you said was thoughtful, honest and worthy of the effort! I hope you are able to be successful.
    My ‘silence’ on certain posts or articles is not because I don’t have deep feelings about things. It has been suggested that I go silent when I do not agree or that am afraid to stand up or offend and let others do it for me. This is not the case. I remain silent (not all the time) because my thoughts often ask my feelings questions that take time to weigh out and reason. Thus slowing down my ability to offer my instant outrage (thank heavens!) because I simply need more time to listen to others and figure out why they feel as they do and how that fits with my own thoughts. Or gives me time to read and think more before I speak. (You know, grandmas advice was solid.)
    If I need a quick ‘fix’, I go to my notes in my phone to weep and whale without reservation. I have done this many times over the past year with great satisfaction!! In that moment anyway.When I’m done, if I find a shred of reasonable wisdom I think is worth sharing and leaves mine and others some shred of dignity I might proceed to post. Most of the time I find the simple exercise of writing a note to myself has served its purpose. I often find myself not fully agreeing with myself or finding fault with some of my grievances when I go back and read it! Making me even more grateful I did not post my cheap rants!
    By doing this I have not caved to the carnal instinct to shove others into a box labeled ‘stupidity’ or whatever lable I think they deserve for not being bright enough to see what I see so clearly. I leave room in that box for myself instead. I leave room for research and listening to a different perspective as well.
    Perspective is not something to dismiss. Divisiveness is fueled by the sheer lack of taking time to consider others perspectives, including our own and how they impact they way we see something as obvious to being right or wrong. Assumptions…well you know what they make.
    So yes, you have made an excellent point and have validated my ranting in my ‘notes’ as a sound practice to slow down and take more thoughtful and perhaps productive action. Let’s hope for this year we can be more productive in our communications! Healing is needed no matter what side of the aisle you choose to stand on. No one is better for cheap shots. No one.

  25. I like it!

  26. Take it a step further, maybe try to understand why you experience outrage in the first place? Could it be that you focus on the things that are out of your control because there are aspects of your life in your control, but are avoiding because you are not honest with yourself? Usually that’s why people are hooked on being offended, they don’t want to admit to themselves that there is a problem and they need to fix it, like any addiction. It’s easier to focus on something outside looking in because you don’t see the complexity of it due to not experiencing it, meanwhile your personal problems are a mess, hence the whole walk a mile in my shoes. Maybe you should start seeing a therapist for 2017 to learn some coping skills? “Codependency no more” is a great book to learn how accept what is out of your control and not be dependent on others to make you happy.

  27. Good grief, bob, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  28. I am a political person. I am on my parish’s party executive committee, on the state party’s central committee, and have worked as a volunteer for local, state and federal candidates for five years. I have been to numerous training sessions on how to use the tools available for voter identification, how to raise money, how to craft a message, how to build a coalition. I have organized phone banks and debate watch parties and voter registration drives, made thousands of phone calls, and trained volunteers. It’s a long, hard slog. I live in the deep South, and we lose far more often than we win (though we elected a governor in 2015, which was like manna from heaven, because oh, did we need that win to boost our spirits.) Social media, cheap outrage as you put it, has the double downside of making people feel like they are DOING something. No, you are not. Actually creating change requires more than a share or a retweet or wringing your hands in despair. Even thoroughly understanding the issues won’t help much without concrete action.

    I am pushing https://www.indivisibleguide.com/ if you are want to work on national stuff and https://www.flippable.org/home/ if you want to set up for a longer term fix heading in to the census in 2020.

    Help.

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