Outrage Porn: How the Need For ‘Perpetual Indignation’ Manufactures Phony Offense
Pretend anger dulls our sensitivity to real problems.
Imagine this was your job: you had to wake up every morning, read and watch what was going on in the world, and then, even if you didn’t actually feel this way — in fact, in spite of the fact that you didn’t feel this way—react with outrage about all of it.
Increasingly, this is the life of the blogger. Despite all the attention and traffic of Upworthy gets for being “positive” these days, outrage and indignation are and always will be pageview magnets. “Outrage porn,” as we’ve come to call it, checks all the boxes of compelling content—it’s high valence, it drives comments, it assuages the ego, projects guilt onto a scapegoat and looks good in your Facebook Feed.
With the exception of Valleywag, very few sites practice the art exclusively but every website, including Betabeat, knows it’s an easy way to get traffic. As Jezebel—a purveyor of the technique themselves—put it, 2013 was the year of “shaming.” Catching someone being racist or homophobic or misogynistic (or more likely, just old and dumb), accusing someone of being unfair, filming a mayor driving over the speed limit, and pointing out privilege are all great things to be outraged by or to “shame” people for. And that’s why they’re staples of the current media scene.
Are they really that upset? Or are they reaching? The topics are serious enough. There’s nothing to laugh at when it comes to rape or racism. But is that really what was going on here? Or do we wish it was so we can be upset?
Here’s a test: Say Alec Baldwin was a friend of yours, or a friend of your parents. If he’d said what he’d said in his farewell essay at dinner, in the course of a normal human conversation, would we have been this pissed off? Would any blogger have been outraged this way in person? Of course not. But blogging makes it possible—no, necessary—and the public follows along. (Ask JustineSacco).
If you noticed, those links above are mostly from Salon.com—a site that’s grown addicted to outrage. So much so that they get outraged about basically anything, up to and past the privilege for white terrorists. It used be that sites like Salon.com had the moral high ground compared to right-wing pundits and demagogues like Rush Limbaugh…now they traffic in the same garbage.
The Roman philosopher Seneca once remarked that the most pitiable form of slavery is self-imposed slavery. After all, he asked, aren’t we all enslaved to something? Our appetites, our emotions, our mistresses?
When I scan the blog headlines in the morning, pity is the word I feel. I see bloggers who have accepted a job—or in many cases, redefined their job in such a way—that requires them to be perpetually indignant about the most minor of things.
Is Sam Biddle really a “muckraker” or is he just as exploited as the people he is supposed to advocate for—required to do the same dehumanizing task each day? Each morning he scans the news (filtering out the good, obviously) and then thinks: what makes me upset about this?
Paul Carr recently made a great case against what seems like at first glance to be a very hypocritical stance by Gawker. Though recently sued for having and using unpaid interns, the Gawker media writers regularly rake in page views for stories blasting unpaid intern controversies at other companies.
I would argue that no one is being hypocritical. They’re being insincere. Every day they wake up and experience this very minor reality of the workplace—unpaid interns—and don’t give two shits. But the second there’s a chance to write about that very same story? They get “angry,” crank up the indignation and watch the pageviews pour in.
There are many things to be outraged about in this world. What portion of thereal outrage needed to motivate people to solve some of our biggest issues is subsumed in the pseudo-outrage drudged up everyday by our biggest outrage porn producers? If we blow off steam by forwarding a story about a stupid racist comment, have we compromised our ability to mobilize assistance for the 2 million displaced Syrians or a struggling democracy movement in Iran? A little? A lot? I don’t know, except that it takes a toll.
Alex Tabarook of Marginal Revolution recently noted, people don’t go to the barricades for minor causes or slight improvements. But I would argue they are less likely to go to the barricades for important causes if they exist in a constant high-strung state of pseudo-outrage. It makes it too hard to separate the real from the fake.
What is real is the toll that fake outrage takes. Psychologists call it the “narcotizing dysfunction,” essentially that thinking and chattering about something eventually gets confused and equated with doing something about it. Of course it doesn’t—but after enough blog posts we delude ourselves into believing we’ve made a difference.
Tim Kreider, a political cartoonist, explained this temptation well a few years ago in an op-ed, “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.”
This is just it. Outrage has slowly eaten online media from the inside out. What was once a righteous and necessary force—a check on softball reporting inside old media—is now a corrupt and lazy vice. The outrage you see isn’t real, it isn’t sincere. In fact, it is the opposite. It’s shallow, it’s superficial and it’s selfish.
Remember that the next time you click a headline and find yourself getting pissed off.