Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lion?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought people were joking at first with […]

David Zahl / 8.5.15


I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought people were joking at first with the whole #Cecilthelion fracas last week. I was traveling, so I only heard snippets of what had gotten people so upset. Once I realized they were serious, surely I was missing something. Alas, even after reading up on the admittedly grotesque incident, the whole thing feels too much like a send-up of internet outrage, parodic in both subject and intensity, like something Black Mirror might do. The joke was on me, I guess. Until I remembered Tim Kreider’s immortal diagnosis of the phenomenon:

So many letters to the editor and comments on the Internet have this same tone of thrilled vindication: these are people who have been vigilantly on the lookout for something to be offended by, and found it…

Obviously, some part of us loves feeling 1) right and 2) wronged. But outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but, over time, devour us from the inside out. Except it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure. We prefer to think of it as a disagreeable stimuli, like pain or nausea, rather than admit that it’s a shameful kick we eagerly indulge again and again…

cecil-lion-protestI’d say “amen” if I didn’t think it’d place me in an equally judgmental position. At least, that’s (sort of) what James Hamblin argued in a terrific write-up of the Cecil-related outpouring for The Atlantic. In his view, the event illustrated the ‘pleasure’ inherent in righteous indignation. Since the true seed of the outcry has to do with moral justification (his term is “validation”), the emotions are not allowed to linger on the event itself. We cannot all be equally upset–that would deny us the affirmation of specialness our anger demands. Instead, it quickly becomes a question of degree, where people start one-upping themselves in search of the highest possible moral ground, clamoring over one another for supreme indignation even though they’re ostensibly on the “same team”. It becomes a contest, in other words, where identity is at stake. Whose outrage is the most pure? The most righteous? Whose devotion to the, er, undercat the most unassailable? Thus the absurd escalation, which, ironically enough, only perpetuates the bad feeling, ignoring logs and splinters alike:

The Internet has served to facilitate outrage, as the Internet does: the hotter the better. And because the case is so visceral and bipartisan in its opposition to Palmer’s act, few people stepped in to suggest that the fury, the people tweeting his home address, might be too much. That argument wins no outrage points. Instead, the people who hadn’t jumped on the Cecil-outrage bandwagon jumped on the superiority-outrage bandwagon. It’s a bandwagon of outrage one-upmanship, and it’s just as rewarding as the original outrage bandwagon…

benjamin-schwartz-they-re-powered-by-internet-outrage-new-yorker-cartoonThe Internet launders outrage and returns it to us as validation, in the form of likes and stars and hearts. The greatest return comes from a strong and superior point of view, on high moral ground. And there is, fortunately and unfortunately, always higher moral ground. Even when a dentist kills an adorable lion, and everyone is upset about it, there’s better outrage ground to be won.

Many people are drawn to defend nature and underdogs (even when they are apex predators) and to hate wealthy, lying, violent dentists. But even more than that they are drawn to feeling superior and appearing wise, and being validated accordingly.

If that’s not a biblical anthropology, I don’t know what is. Add to the mix a deeply unsympathetic perpetrator, and the Old Testament parallels get downright uncomfortable: if we have someone at whom we can point the finger and thereby heap our collective guilt and shame on, maybe they will absorb or at least distract us from our own for a bit. The human race loves a scapegoat, after all.

Anyway, Hamblin’s assessment reminded me of two other observations that surfaced this week, albeit from opposite sides of the political spectrum. The first came from Camille Paglia, whose interview with Salon Ethan quoted on Friday. It’s almost as if the lady is incapable of giving uninteresting commentary (aggressively contrarian at times, sure, but never boring). This is from the section where she goes after the culture of snark (e.g. Jon Stewart) and decries the influence of radical atheists, whom she describes as adolescent. But it was her characterization of the social media generation that seemed especially relevant: 

“All the great world religions contain a complex system of beliefs regarding the nature of the universe and human life that is far more profound than anything that liberalism has produced. We have a whole generation of young people who are clinging to politics and to politicized visions of sexuality for their belief system. They see nothing but politics, but politics is tiny. Politics applies only to society. There is a huge metaphysical realm out there that involves the eternal principles of life and death… Young people have nothing to enlighten them, which is why they’re clinging so much to politicized concepts, which give them a sense of meaning and direction.”

Meaning, people of a certain generation are dying for meaning and, lacking any more substantive metaphysical framework, will latch onto basically anything they can to get it–especially if it approaches their pre-existing sympathies, political or otherwise–even something as outwardly inconsequential as the Cecil travesty. In fact, the absurdity of this one is why it exposes the psychology underneath so nakedly: Moral outrage fills a psychological need. It allows a person to feel like they matter, especially when they’re afraid that they don’t. And thus Internet outrage almost always has more to do with its subject than its object. We come to identify with it–to rely on righteous anger for our validation, justification, the measure of our virtue, what have you–so that when it’s taken away, when public opinion finally shifts in our direction, or the court overturns the decision we found so unfair, well, the outrage has to find a new target if we are to feel like our breaths still count. Come to find out, fury does not always discriminate so astutely. It has a brain of its own.

Not only does rage have a brain of its own, it tends to follow a discouraging if all-too-predictable pattern, as Alan Jacobs’ suggested in his brilliant discussion of philosopher Charles Taylor’s “Code Fetishists and Normolaters” dichotomy. It’s one of the better things I’ve read this year.

Jacobs–with the help of another social media firestorm (Justine Sacco) as well as Leo Tolstoy–makes a compelling case for Taylor’s thesis that society consists of two warring factions, moralists and antinomians, one of which gives birth to the other. These factions take both religious and non-religious forms, and while on the surface they look different, they are in fact quite similar in their allegiance to “rules” (or principals) over people, something that the disembodiment of technology makes much easier.

It’s not a particularly long piece, nor as convoluted as it may sound, so do go read the whole thing. The following is hopefully enough to get the gist though:

In an absolutely vital essay called “The Perils of Moralism,” [philosopher Charles] Taylor explains that “modern liberal society tends toward a kind of ‘code fetishism,’ or nomolatry. … Code fetishism means that the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code… The attempt was always to make people over as more perfect practicing Christians, through articulating codes and inculcating disciplines.” Eventually “the Christian life became more and more identified with these codes and disciplines.” But once that had happened, the Gospel itself became dispensable: all we had to do was to extract the rules from it, and the “values” that produced them, and we were good to go. Thus arise figures who use the codes extracted from Christianity against Christianity: Voltaire, Hume, Gibbon.

lww-06And thus also arises an antinomian counter-movement: “Modern culture is marked by a series of revolts against this moralism, in both its Christian and non-Christian forms. … These form, for instance, the central themes of the Romantic period.”

Thus modernity is characterized by constant tensions and frequent eruptions of hostility between two great opponents, the antinomians and the code fetishists. Most of the fights that afflict social media today are versions of this conflict: just think of the recent skirmishes between the self-described free-speech advocates on Reddit and the opponents whom they refer to as SJWs (Social Justice Warriors).

I think the key lesson to be drawn from Taylor’s account is that code fetishism produces antinomianism: antinomians are people who get frustrated by the code fetishists’ relentless policing and disciplining of disagreement—which the fetishists do because they are trying to build a more just society and think that codification and enforcement of rules is the only way to do it—and believe that a simply rejection of rules is the only way to resist. That is, both sides agree that morality is a matter of rules…

But what if this is a false dichotomy? What if the code fetishists and antinomians are both wrong, and wrong for the same reason: because they have unwittingly accepted the false idea that “the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code”?

I think we can see that our dominant social media have a strong tendency to reinforce the normolatry-antinomianism dichotomy, and to obscure the need for “networks of living concern.” To search Twitter or Facebook for people using words you don’t like, or using important words in ways you don’t like; to scroll through a list of tweets or posts that employ a particular hashtag with an eye towards the absurd or offensive; to seek out particularly provocative tweets or posts in order to see how outrageous the replies are—these are the characteristic acts of the code fetishist. I pray you, avoid them.

To be perfectly honest, most of what goes through my mind after reading Jacobs’ and Taylor’s words is the abstract code I want to extract from them: something about rebellion and conformity being flip sides of the same Ought-sized coin, or about the way anger inevitably turns grace into a law. Whether or not such thoughts have any grounding is beside the point–they comprise a validation mentality all the same, one that seeks its own moral high ground/superiority and is bent on its own dehumanizing ends (which are my own), consciously or not.

I suppose that leaves only one possibility open, hope-wise. Not just for me and you, but for Walter Palmer and his critics (and their critics), that is, mob and quarry alike. I’m talking about something that doesn’t require us to secure our own meaning. In fact, it doesn’t require anything of us at all–except, perhaps, our need, which is the only entry point for true meaning anyway. I’m referring to the hope of forgiveness. Initiating forgiveness, yes, atoning forgiveness, aimed at those incapable of conceptualizing it correctly.

It sounds like abstraction, I know. And it would be, were this forgiveness less a What than a Who. Or, as Jacobs so beautifully puts it mid-way through:

Our world looks very different if what matters is not the code we can abstract from a given situation but the situation itself—or, more specifically still, the utterly particular person who stands in front of us.