Tim Kreider on the Pleasures and Perils of “Outrage Porn”

Pain is a Physical Delight; Empathy is an Impotent Pain

Ben Self / 9.28.20

Imagine if we had chosen the path of retribution and revenge. Our country would have been dust and ashes.

– Desmond Tutu, on the end of Apartheid

Look, I’m mad too. I’m scared too. I’m anxious and exhausted and finding it hard to be kind too. These are dark days. Some fear, some anger, some impatience is certainly justified. So is marching in the streets, I’d say. But our addiction to outrage probably isn’t helping us get to where we want to go.

Longtime New York Times contributor Tim Kreider knows what it feels like to be hopped up on anger all the time. His classic article about it from 2009, “Isn’t It Outrageous?” is thus worth a revisit. Here’s how Kreider opened:

I was a political cartoonist and essayist for the duration of the Bush presidency, so I was professionally furious every week for eight years. The pejorative “Bush-hater” always rankled me — presuming that my rightful outrage at that administration’s abuses was as arbitrary and irrational as misogyny or arachnophobia. And yet, looking back at my work from those years, even I am struck by its tone of shrill, unrelieved rancor. No wonder readers who met me in real life seemed surprised to learn that I was personable and polite.

I went to an uber-progressive liberal arts college in the mid-2000s. Like Kreider, I remember being angry about politics a lot in those days. I protested, signed petitions, argued with any peers or relatives who would engage, and dreamed glorious dreams about how things might look different some day. Of course, I had no idea how bad things could get.

I vividly remember the immense thrill of activism, of righteous indignation, that sense we had that all the momentum of history was on our side and that we were marching with the wind at our backs toward a bright new day. Like it does for so many today, anger then felt to me like the most appropriate, most righteous, most serious-minded emotion. We felt that only those who were similarly filled with righteous outrage and fired up for justice were worth listening to. You down with the revolution?

What I didn’t understand was just how much anger could become an end in itself, a kind of drug that both numbed and made me feel more alive every time I got a hit. It was both a palliative and a stimulant. Here’s Kreider:

A couple of years ago, while meditating, I learned something kind of embarrassing: anger feels good. Although we may consciously experience it as upsetting, somatically it feels a lot like the first rush of an opiate — a tingling warmth on the insides of your elbows and wrists, in the back of your knees. Realizing that anger was a physical pleasure explained some of the perverse obstinacy with which my mind kept returning to it despite the fact that, intellectually, I knew it was pointless self-torture.

Once I realized I enjoyed anger, I noticed how much time I spent experiencing it. If you’re anything like me, you spend about 87 percent of your mental life winning imaginary arguments that are never actually going to take place. It seems like most of the fragments of conversation you overhear in public consist of rehearsals for, or reenactments of, just such speeches: shrill litanies of injury and injustice, affronts to common sense and basic human decency too grotesque to be borne.

I hear lots of different perspectives on anger these days. Some people, like therapists and mindfulness gurus and political moderates, speak disparagingly of anger and try to help us find ways to manage and reduce it, recognizing its destructive power in human relationships and society broadly, as well as its potential negative impact on our health. But I’ve also heard lots of activists with a very different view. Essentially: get angry, stay angry, and use that to fuel your activism.

There are plenty of good reasons to be pissed off. At this very moment, in my own city of Louisville, thousands of people are marching in the streets to vent their frustration, to try and make their voices heard. And they desperately need to be heard, as I’ve said elsewhere. Anger itself isn’t wrong, any more than any other basic human emotion. It serves very important functions. But, to state the obvious, it is also dangerous — especially when we all get hooked on it and go seeking it out. Here’s Kreider again:

Outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but over time devour us from the inside out. And it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure. We prefer to think of it as a disagreeable but fundamentally healthy involuntary reaction to negative stimuli thrust upon us by the world we live in, like pain or nausea, rather than admit that it’s a shameful kick we eagerly indulge again and again.

And, as with all vices, vast and lucrative industries are ready to supply the necessary material. It sometimes seems as if most of the news consists of outrage porn, selected specifically to pander to our impulses to judge and punish and get us all riled up with righteous indignation. Think of the tabloids’ punning headlines, wailing and jeering and all but calling for the public stoning of their scapegoats … Let us not even mention talk radio, or the Internet. […]

When I scan the daily headlines of [even] prestigious publications like [the New York Times], I’m semiconsciously seeking out stories that will provide fodder for the sadomasochistic pleasures of outrage and vindication, of being wronged and proven right. […]

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that all outrage is inherently irrational, that we should all just calm down, that It’s All Good. All is not good. … Outrage is healthy to the extent that it causes us to act against injustice. But in my passionate loathing … I’m really not much different from the kinds of housewives who write hate mail to the Machiavellian villainess of their favorite soap opera. […]

As David Foster Wallace asked in “Host,” his essay on talk radio, “Aren’t there parts of ourselves that are just better left unfed?”

Indeed, there are. In this insanely politicized moment, it feels like we need to turn down the heat just a little. I’m not saying you shouldn’t stay politically engaged — or march or speak out or donate or make calls for your favorite politicians. Please do what you feel is worthwhile. I’m sure at least some of it is. But take a breath sometimes, take stock of what anger is doing to you, maybe even take some intentional breaks from news and social media, and remember that we’re all flawed and limited here, we all see as in a mirror dimly, and we’re all children of the same merciful God.

To conclude his still-remarkably-relevant 2009 essay, Kreider reflected on how his anger occasionally yielded to something else, an uncomfortable sort of empathy. He recalls feeling his customary gall during the infamous Captain Phillips ship-hijacking incident (that same year) when the murderous Somali pirates holding innocent hostages were attempting to negotiate with foreign powers. He felt a sense of triumph and satisfaction when the U. S. Navy was able to storm in and free the hostages, reclaiming the ship and killing most of the pirates. However, as he writes,

My feel-good ending got annoyingly deflated when I saw the lone surviving Somali pirate brought in manacles to the United States — a place where he did not speak the language and knew not a soul. …

I felt the same helpless gut empathy for him that I used to feel, unwelcome and against my better judgment, for George Bush in those moments when he seemed to dimly apprehend that he was in way over his head. And it occurred to me that one reason we rush so quickly to the vulgar satisfactions of judgment, and love to revel in our righteous outrage, is that it spares us the impotent pain of empathy, and the harder, messier work of understanding.

That sounds about right to me. Look, I’m not naïve. I know this next month is going to be bitterness and rancor personified. I know we all tend to make transitory, contingent things into ultimate things. Let’s just get through this election. But then, maybe, let’s see if we can’t try to live together and understand each other before we all end up being devoured by this addictive outrage. It’s hurting us. As singer-songwriter Noah Gunderson once put it, “Hatred is a sharp knife held by the blade.”

http://https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=raG6eIL-LM0


COMMENTS


7 responses to “Tim Kreider on the Pleasures and Perils of “Outrage Porn””

  1. duo says:

    Thankyou
    Thankyou
    Thankyou

  2. Pierre says:

    You make a compelling argument, Ben. I, too, wish there was much less anger in our contemporary life than there is, and that it wasn’t so addictive to me and seemingly everyone around me.

    I have two thoughts/questions: one, it’s been said (somewhere) that to be a thinking person in this modern world is to be angry, precisely because you come to see and comprehend the full measure of injustice in the world. One could slip the manacles of this anger by simply remaining blissfully ignorant. What do we do with this? Does not God call us into moral clarity, and if it is unavoidable that such clarity will produce anger, what do we do?

    Second, I understand that we need to just “get through this election,” as you say. But to suggest that we should just try to live together and understand each other in its wake seems – forgive me for being a bit direct – unbearably naïve, despite your protestations. Particularly if our incumbent president somehow wins… a huge part of his base consists of people who are not at all interested in “just try[ing] to live together and understand each other.” In fact, if his “leadership” continues, one could argue that hundreds of thousands of lives are directly at risk: an unchecked pandemic, for one, plus the increasingly deadly impacts of climate change-fueled hurricanes, fires, and floods, and the empowerment that white nationalists feel in directly confronting, attacking, and in extreme cases killing their political opponents with guns and vehicles. And people know that the hatred and outrage is hurting us… for millions of Americans, that seems to be the point. Perhaps it’s the Freudian death drive in action.
    So, the question becomes: what good does a bit of Gospel-inflected feel-goodery do in light of this world-historically dire situation?

    • Ben Self says:

      Hey Pierre, thanks for the interesting questions. Here’s what I got:

      Re: question 1… I’m not saying we shouldn’t be angry (and neither is Kreider), but that we should be mindful of what anger is doing to us and try not to feed it. I think it’s possible to be an informed person and still manage your anger (most of the time). I think faith is a big part of that — it keeps us from feeling like everything has to be fixed right this second and that we have to be the ones to do it, as if that were even possible. Other things like meditation and limiting some of our social media and news diet can also help.

      Re: question 2… I think what you’re getting at here is the extreme difficulty, if not impossibility, of loving your enemies. History gives us lots of examples of times people HAVE actually forgiven/loved their enemies – hence why I included the Tutu clip – but it certainly feels impossible when faced with all of the existential threats you describe. And in many cases it might be impossible — without God. So how do we even begin to forgive, or “live together” with people we have reason to hate? Here faith helps a lot too. In the same way that we look to the cross for our own forgiveness, we look to the cross for the capacity to forgive others. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The two are always intertwined. The humility of needing forgiveness and being loved anyway is the starting point for being able to offer that forgiveness to others. It’s the starting point for respect, for being able to understand and live together with “enemies”, to see them as still equally human and valuable. It diffuses the desire for domination. To paraphrase Lincoln, in the same way that I would not want anyone to be my master, to treat me as lesser than, I would not be anyone else’s master – I would not seek to dominate anyone else. Hence, forgiveness, understanding, learning to live together, become the only real long-term options. Our addiction to outrage makes that really difficult. But the only way to move forward as a country is ultimately together. The goal is not to meet domination with more domination. The Democrats are at their best when they are a big tent party, bringing people into the fold rather than seeking to dominate and punish.

      • CJ Green says:

        I love this post, and I love this discussion.

      • Pierre says:

        Ben, thanks so much for a thoughtful reply. Re: #2, I completely agree that without God it is impossible for me to love my enemies. I am utterly helpless to do so, and I do occasionally think to myself, “Jesus will have to love [him/her] because I can’t.” Remembering my need for forgiveness before I call out someone else’s need for it is also a key insight.

        One lingering uncertainty remains for me… you say “The goal is not to meet domination with more domination.” In principle, I agree. It’s part of why I’m really nervous about the idea of packing the Supreme Court, for example. But when it comes to my own existence – my ability to live safely as an openly gay person, to not die or be maimed from COVID, to avoid death from environmental degradation, to not get shot on a random Tuesday by a maniac with access to an assault rifle etc. – I’m much less sanguine about this. It seems like literally the only option I have to preserve my own life/health/safety/sanity is to actively pursue political domination over the forces that would make those things more likely to happen to me. These are very real stakes that are confronting millions of Americans right now.

        Perhaps the bottom line question is, am I suppose to forgive people to death? Yes, I know Jesus did, but good lord is that something Christianity can reasonably require of a person?

        • Ben Self says:

          You’re asking a really deep and tough question here, Pierre. It gets at the heart of whether violence or domination of any form is ever “justified”. I don’t have a perfect answer for you. I do think that some forms of domination are, on a societal level, at least realistically necessary in this fallen world. We have laws that punish people who harm others. We put people in prison. In lesser matters, we issue fines, restraining orders, etc. I’m not against using those kinds of “domination” to protect people from others and in some cases from themselves. I’m also not technically a pacifist – I acknowledge the social need for armed police and a standing army, again, in this fallen world – even as I keep close Christ’s injunctions to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

          At the same time, I think the theories behind nonviolent social action can help us. Someone else can hate us, can persecute us, even inflict harm upon us, but they cannot make us hate them back, or meet injury with injury. Perhaps that sounds unrealistic, but that’s exactly what people like John Lewis studied how to do and practiced in vicious mock protests before they ever engaged in actual ones. If we let someone pull us “low enough to hate”, if we let them provoke us to violence and retribution, then they win. We become as hateful and unjust as our enemy.

          That said, it’s important to remember that MLK said, “It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.” If Trump and his goons commit crimes, they should go to prison. I hope and pray God forgives them and helps them all in his own way though, just as I pray he does me – and my goons.

          One other thing about nonviolent social action – and I know this all may be old news to you, but I think it’s worth mentioning – it works better than domination in the long run. If you accept the premise that we can’t just wipe out our enemies, then ultimately we will have to figure out how to live alongside them, and so we can’t just ignore them or treat them like crap. We have to bring them into the fold. You don’t bring someone into the fold by yelling at them and calling them every kind of halfwit and bigot in the book. That just doesn’t work. At best, that just pushes it underground. Instead, you do it by patient, patient, patient forms of human decency. Small-talk. Neighborliness. Looking for good in people, even when it may not really be there. That kind of decency builds the trust that actually makes people amenable to change.

          Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts. All the best!

  3. Todd Brewer says:

    I imagine many viewers tuned into the debate this week for precisely this reason. They aren’t undecided voters by any measure, but simply wanted the pleasure of something to feel angry about.

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